British Traditions and Customs

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Most of British popular and colourful customs come from early celebrations marking the passage of the seasons, such as those surrounding the advent of spring or midsummer at Stonehenge. Another source of British customs are festivities and rites associated with the Christian Church, such as Christmas and Easter. Some pre-Christian religious ceremonies have become so closely associated with later church customs that they mixed and are now inseparable from each other.

Dramatic historical periods or particular events have had repercussions on British customs. The Industrial Revolution was probably the most devastating because a lot of people had to move from the country to the huge manufacturing cities. The First World War diminished people’s belief in a constant world with God in Heaven.

The Second World War brought technology as well as the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Because of all those events a lot of customs disappeared and many of them changed or became only stereotyped images of the British. Fortunately, there is still a variety of popular customs alive today, mainly because there are still people full of enthusiasm who prefer celebrating simple, traditional pleasures to enjoying manufactured amusement provided by television.

I had to choose among a great variety of customs connected with certain places, with people’s everyday life or with particular holidays. Describing all of them would make no sense. Thus let’s concentrate only on those which are very popular and celebrated by a great number of British people. Royal customs still seem to attract many Britons as well as tourists visiting the United Kingdom. Tea is Britain’s favourite drink and there are several interesting customs connected with drinking it. People of all ages like visiting pubs in Britain, so it is worth reflecting upon their character and role in everyday life. Read about The Emperor’s Club

Royal traditions

Some people in Britain claim there are no real royal customs in everyday life. Many British people like the Royal Family, but there are some of them who would like the United Kingdom to become a Republic. Nevertheless, the British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth and her immediate family, regarded as representing the highest aristocratic presence in the land, attract much popular interest and the constant attention of the media.

London is a royal city. There is Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth lives and where she meets important visitors. Every day tourists can see the “Changing of the Guard.” It is a formal ceremony of changing the royal guard, held every morning in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace and also in front of the main building of the “Royal Horse Guards” in Whitehall. At 11:00 a troop of mounted guards from the Household Cavalry takes over in the courtyard on the Whitehall side of Horse Guards and at 11:30 a company of infantry, usually from one of the regiments of Foot Guards, replaces the old guard with a ceremony outside Buckingham Palace.

The Queen is the only person in Britain with two Birthdays. Her real birthday is on April 21st, but her “official” birthday is on the second Saturday in June. The Union Jack is flown on public buildings, and the national anthem is played on the Queen’s real birthday, but it is not a bank holiday, and no particular annual ceremony is held. In June, however, there is the occasion of the Birthday Honours and it is marked by “the Trooping of the Colour.” At the end of the Birthday Honours the Prime Minister recommends a list of Dissolution Honours. Orders of chivalry are based on the medieval concept of orders of knighthood, though only one order, the Garter, dates from that period.

Appointments to the Garter, the Order of Merit, the Thistle and the Royal Victorian Order are the personal gift of the monarch. The others are on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The ceremony of “Trooping the Colour” was first used in 1748 to mark the monarch’s official birthday, and it has been an annual event since the early XIX century. It is a big parade with brass bands and hundreds of soldiers at Horse Guards’ Parade in London.

A regiment of the Queen’s soldiers, the Guards march in front of her. At the front of the parade is the regiment’s flag, “colour.” The Queen comes from Buckingham Palace along the Hall to Horse Guards (each year from 1969 to 1986 she rode the same black mare, Burmese). She takes the salute at a colourful and famously precise military parade. Then she returns to the palace where she and her family watch a fly – past by the RAF from the balcony.

Although modern Britain is controlled by Parliament not the Royal Family, it is the Queen who traditionally opens Parliament every autumn in late October or early November. She travels from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament in a gold carriage, the Irish State Coach, and is accompanied by heralds and other dignitaries into a crowded House of Lords. Black Rod, the official of the Order of the Garter and of the House of Lords, whose symbol of authority is an ebony rod, walks to summon the Commons to join the Lords in hearing the Queen’s Speech, also known as the “Speech from the Throne.” The Commons traditionally arrive in the upper house making a noise and chatting to emphasize that they are not overawed. This custom reflects the long struggle of the Commons to take their independence of the crown. At the State Opening of Parliament the Queen wears a crown and other jewels from the Crown Jewels.

One of Britain’s oldest traditions is the Order of the Garter ceremony . The Order of the Garter is the highest order of knighthood, together with the Order of the Thistle. It was founded in 1348 by King Edward III, who is said to have picked up a garter dropped by the Countess of Salisbury at a court festival and gallantly tied it round his own knee, saying: “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.” These words are the motto of the Order. Now the knights of the Order are not all soldiers. They are members of the House of Lords , church leaders or politicians as well as there are some foreign knights, for example the King of Norway.

The Grand Duke of Luxembourg and the Emperor of Japan. The Queen is the Sovereign of the Order of the Garter. Prince Charles and Prince Philip are Royal Knights, and the Queen Mother was a Lady of the Garter. In June the Order has a traditional ceremony at Windsor Castle. All the knights walk from the castle to St. George’s Chapel, the royal church at Windsor. They wear heavy robes, which are traditional clothes of the Order. The sign of the Order of the Garter is a blue velvet garter.

There are many more occasions connected with the Royal Family or famous royal places in London but I will mention only one more, the Royal Maundy. On Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, in a selected cathedral city the Queen presents small purses of Maundy money to specially chosen men and women. Their number is the same as the sovereign’s age in years. Originally the sovereign also washed the feet of the old people, in memory of the washing of the apostles’ feet by Christ during the Last Supper. That stopped in 1754. The silver coins are minted in the values of 1, 2, 3, and 4 pence and carry the young head of the Sovereign for the entire reign. In 1992, when Elizabeth II was in her 66th year, 66 men and 66 women each received coins amounting in face value to 66 pence.

Drinking tea

People drink tea in England for all sorts of reasons – to relax, to wake up, and most importantly as a real habit. There are lots of people who come from work and have to have a cup of tea before they can do anything. It is a real custom.

When someone visits the British at home , they always offer to put the kettle on and make a cup of tea. There is no special atmosphere needed, however people can create different atmospheres when drinking tea. Mostly it is a relaxed occasion. Young people tend to drink less tea, or coffee – more often they drink Coke or fizzy drinks.

Tea was brought to England from China in the 1650 by the East India Company, which for the next two centuries was the world’s largest dealer in the commodity. Tea was at first extremely expensive. It cost about L5 per kilo. Originally tea was drunk only in the coffee houses. Later it became a normal drink in fashionable households, and during the XVIII and by the XIX century it was the nation’s main drink. In the first half of the XIX century richer classes introduced two new meals, both called ” tea .” One was ” afternoon tea “- tea and cakes at five o’clock. The other, known as ” high tea,” was a regular meal including meat or fish, eaten later in the evening on occasions when it was not convenient to sit down at dinner.

In some parts of Britain ” high tea ” means an early – evening meal taken instead of afternoon tea or a later dinner, especially by children whose parents eat separately after the children are in bed. At present, there is also ” tea – break” sometimes called “elevenses “- the time working people take off in the morning for a snack. ” Cream tea ” is a light meal taken in the early afternoon consisting of scones (soft, round cakes sometimes containing dried fruit), jam and cream usually also with a pot of tea. It is considered to be typically English and is often something people have when on holiday.

There are some interesting expressions connected with tea, for example “not for all the tea in China ” which is used when making a refusal, or ” tea and sympathy ” meaning a lot of attention and kindness which is not completely sincere and is not followed by practical help.

Visiting pubs

A pub, ” public house,” is a traditional feature of almost all towns and villages in the United Kingdom and is considered to be the equivalent of a bar or cafe in other countries. Pubs developed as a result of industrialisation. They evolved out of taverns and ale houses (ale is a type of beer) and were very popular among hard working men because they let them escape from their difficult life and poor housing conditions. In the XIX century in Britain, especially in the North East, communities of miners, shipbuilders and steelworkers lived. Family roles were unchangeable.

A man worked at hard, dangerous, physical labour while a woman had to look after him and their children in poor housing. After the day’s work, the man came home for a meal and then went out to meet his mates in a pub. Men and women lived, for most of the time, separate lives. When the economic structure changed as well as towns and cities, pubs started to serve a different market. In the past they used to sell little other than alcohol and were mainly occupied by men, but now food and family atmosphere have become more normal. Many pubs in the larger cities are placed in beautiful Victorian buildings and are said to have a special “character” or historic interest.

For many people it is a kind of a club, where one can relax, talk with friends, listen to music, play games (such as darts or billiards) and enjoy drinking and eating. Many pubs still have one area called the ” public bar” and others with names such as ” saloon bar ” or ” lounge bar,” names that survived from times when there were class distinctions between drinkers. Most pubs are open twice a day or all day, and many have a garden where people can eat and drink in the summer. Alcohol cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18, and those under 16 are only allowed to eat and drink in the garden. Some of the larger and better furnished pubs also provide overnight accommodation. All pubs have names and signs above their door which reflect their historic origin. Typical are: ” King’s Head,” ” The Red Lion,” ” The Half Moon ” or ” Three Horseshoes.”

The main alcohol served in pubs is warm beer. The traditional kind is called ” real ale.” It is very strong beer from an old recipe. An important custom in pubs is ” buying a round.” In a group, each person takes turns buying drinks for everyone. Although in pubs there is no waiter service, people do not think that it is uncomfortable. They like serving themselves because they feel like in their own houses. Unlike in any other eating or drinking place in Britain, the staff are expected to know the regular customers personally, to know what their usual drink is and to chat with them when they are not serving someone.


There is a very popular belief that Britain is a ” land of tradition.” This claim, very frequent in tourist brochures, is mainly based on spectacular public life and on centuries of political continuity. At this level it really seems to be true. For instance the royal ceremonies, which are centuries old, remain unchanged and are still popular.

However, British people are individuals and do not follow tradition very strictly. There are very few ancient customs that are followed by the majority of families on special occasions. The British are said to have less commonly practised customs and fewer sayings or common proverbs than most other countries have.

We often see only the stereotyped image of the British, which makes them look quite strange and unusual. There are plenty of typical British habits which are not typical any more. In general, they do not eat large, fried breakfast. Probably more people drink coffee or other drinks than tea. A lot of Britons prefer relaxing at home while watching TV or video than visiting pubs. Does it mean that most of the British customs are not real customs but only stereotypes? I do not think so.

It means that the British are normal, contemporary people, different from each other and able to change, to evaluate as long as their nation is alive. Nevertheless, if a particular custom is still practised, even by a minority group, it is so interesting, colourful and unusual that it is, for sure, worth describing and remembering.

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