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Christmas in England


During the Christmas season in England, we visit a family home, the town of Bath, and London to learn about English holiday traditions—from candlelit carol concerts and Christmas markets to mince pies and figgy pudding.

Complete Video Script

For scenes straight out of a box of old-fashioned Christmas cards, we head to England — to the city of Bath. Here, in the heart of the old town near the magnificent medieval Abbey, Bath hosts an annual Christmas Market.

Carols are a deeply ingrained part of the English Christmas tradition. The custom goes back to Shakespeare's day. Today, young and old sing their way through the season.

Here the Bath Abbey Choir of Boys and Men are performing a carol concert by candlelight.

(Choir singing Christmas carols.)

As is the case just about anywhere, it's in the countryside that families celebrate Christmas in the most down-to-earth style.

My friends Maddy and Paul and their kids, Theo and Leila, are looking for a living tree, which they'll decorate and then plant at home.

Maddy: About the right size?
Paul: A fairy on top?
Maddy: Brilliant, I like it.

It's a new twist on an old tradition — with a wink to the nature-worshiping pagans who once haunted these parts.

Decorating with greens goes back to the Druids who adorned their temples with swags of evergreen. For pagans, living greens — in the dead of winter –represented the persistence of life. And for Christians, evergreens are a reminder of the gift of everlasting life.

During this hectic season, getting together to bake Christmas goodies, while the little ones decorate edible ornaments, is a fine way for busy mums to spend some time together.

Maddy's recipe for mince pies harkens back to the days of Henry the 8th. Back then, the dried fruits, spices, and shredded meat for the filling were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford to make a mince pie. According to tradition, 12 pies should be eaten during the twelve days of Christmas to ensure good luck each month of the coming year.

Mother: Don't forget the mince pies, Maddy.

But it's the Christmas pudding that's the real centerpiece of a traditional English holiday meal.

Mother: This is Christmas pudding and it's made with lots of very special ingredients that in days gone by, they used to be very, very expensive. And you know you call it figgy pudding because it used to have lots of figs and things in it. It used to be made in Elizabethan times and we all have, because it's so special, an extra big stir and an extra big wish.
Kids: Figgy pudding song…
Theo: Now, we'll put this one up here…

Like a lot of us, Maddy and Paul are opting for a simpler, less commercial style of Christmas and that's reflected in their family traditions.

Little Theos and Leilas wouldn't always have been so involved in the family activities. Childhood as we know it really began in 19th century England with the new middle class. And at Christmas those stern Victorians gave themselves permission to indulge their children.

The English tradition of caroling starts very young. We're visiting Theo's school as the students take center-stage at the 14th century village church for a very special Christmas concert.

(Kids singing Christmas songs.)

Christmas is drawing near and tonight these lucky kids are taking a train through the woods to meet Santa, or as the English know him, Father Christmas.

Santa: Come on in now. Come on in and stand just there… and you stand just there… you come across there… that's right… and tell me your name… What's your names?
Boy: Dylan.
Santa: Hello, and what's your name?
Girl: Kate.
Santa: And what's your name?
Boy: Jack.
Santa: Oh, well done! Now, then most important, what do you want for Christmas?
Girls: I don't know.
Santa: Just some surprises? I'm very good at surprises. And what do you want?
Boy: Well, I haven't' written my list up yet.
Santa: Haven't you? So we’re going to wait for your list and when it comes, I'll be ready for it. Now, are you going to do something for me? Are you going to leave me something out on Christmas Eve?
Boy: Yes!
Santa: What are you going to leave me?
Boy: Mince pies and wine.
Santa: Well done! And are you going to leave a carrot for the reindeer?
Kids: Yes!
Santa: Well done.

We'll check back with Theo and Leila on Christmas Eve.

Santa: I've got something special for you… and what was your name darling?
Girl: Kate…

While children on their best behavior ask Santa for the toy of their dreams, my wish right now is a chance to hear one of finest chamber choirs in England, The Sixteen, filling a church with timeless sounds of the season.

(Choir singing.)

Leaving the tranquility of the English countryside behind, London offers Christmas fun fit for a queen and streets twinkling with joy.

There's magic in the air… or… is that snow? Here in Trafalgar Square, in the heart of the city a winter wonderland has been created just for the day.

Father Christmas: It’s a lovely snowy day isn't it?

Father Christmas has dropped by for the wintry fun and London's Town Crier is in fine form as he passes out mince pies and holiday cheer.

Nearby at Somerset House, once a grand palace, the courtyard has been transformed into an ice skating rink elegant enough to make a commoner feel like royalty.

At Covent Garden shoppers can find classic toys for tots at Benjamin Pollock's famous Toy Shop, in business since the 1880s.

The joy and peace of the Christmas season bring both people and countries together. This giant spruce, a gift from the citizens of Oslo is a reminder of the friendship forged between Britain and Norway during WWII.