Although a ‘traditional’ British Christmas might include a trip to a midnight carol service, turkey for lunch and then a snooze after the Queen’s speech, there are plenty of more unusual ways to celebrate the festive season. But be warned, most of these are not for the faint hearted.
For some reason, many Brits choose one of the chilliest days of the year to take a group open-air dip.
You can swim in the sea – and get professional photos to prove it – at Exmouth in Devon, whereas in Porthcawl, Wales, they’ve been dunking themselves for 49 years, with over 900 shivering participants last year.
In London’s Hyde Park, the Serpentine swim is for club members only, but you’re welcome to join the aquatic silliness in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Here, the traditional town swim was recently ‘saved’ after new organisers stepped in. With around 600 participants, a further 2000 spectators show up to watch the frigid throng.
While these swims are largely non-competitive, quirky races also feature heavily on the British calendar at this time of year. In the Cambridgeshire village of Grantchester, made famous by the poetry of Rupert Brooke, teams race down the main street tumbling beer barrels in front of them.
For the Boxing Day race in Swimbridge, you’ll need a wheelbarrow and a friend who trusts you. In Matlock, meanwhile, you can dress up as Santa and hope your team’s raft is the fastest over the course on the River Derwent.
The residents of Kenilworth are more savvy: rather than getting wet themselves, they launch up to 1500 sponsored yellow ducks into the local river and cheer their ‘bird’ to the finish.
If this all sounds too wet for your liking, how about festivities involving fire instead? The Scottish fishing port of Stonehaven hosts a world-famous ceremony each New Year’s Eve – or Hogmanay, as the Scots prefer you call it – which features giant fireballs being swung on the end of wires. This camera-worthy custom is over a century old.
And there are flames south of the border, too. Not to be outdone by the Scots, residents of Allendale in Northumberland parade through their town with burning tar barrels. The impressive part: the scorching barrels are carried on their heads.
Brighton’s Fire Festival takes place on December 21st, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Here, locals make lanterns out of willow and paper, carry them through the city, then set them alight on the beach.
In the Orkney Islands, December days are very short indeed, which might explain the bizarre behaviour of the ‘Ba’ game contested by the Uppies and Doonies. Loosely based on soccer, several hundred burly Scots compete in ill-defined teams with both feet and hands, to steer the ball either to the sea (the Doonies’ aim) or to local landmark Mackinson’s corner (the Uppies). Despite several attempts by town officials to ban the ensuing chaos, this good-natured anarchy is said to date back to Roman times.
Overall, there’s no excuse for a British Christmas to be predictable. You might end up wet, tired, burned or bruised, but never bored.
Pauline is British by birth and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area nine years ago and, apart from a yearning for afternoon tea and historic homes, has never looked back. Her work has been published by House of Fifty, Toasted Cheese and Alfie Dog Fiction. Her first novel, Saving Saffron Sweeting, was released in Spring 2013. Visit her site here.