When Susan got in touch and asked me to write a guest blog on UK versus American English, I was reminded that it isn’t just basic language which has separated us occasionally. Local traditions are so ingrained that we forget sometimes that others don’t share the same experiences. When it comes down to it, some of the stories behind our long history of traditions are pretty interesting, particularly for those who haven’t heard them before. Here are some of the things (and maybe a few extras) that I’ve had to explain…
This is the one which sticks in my mind most. When Guy Fawkes and his pals cooked up a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and thus assassinate the incumbent monarch 410 years ago, I wonder whether they realised how notorious they would become (whatever the outcome of that event, you can bet we’d still be talking about it). They failed, and were ultimately convicted of high treason. Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered, a spectacularly grisly affair for what at the time was deemed the ultimate crime. So, we set off fireworks (because gunpowder plot) and burn effigies of Mr Fawkes (because why not) and the whole thing these days can go on for almost two weeks: like everything else, it’s increasingly commercialised, and particularly if 5 November isn’t a Friday or Saturday, many councils will arrange bonfires on the nearest convenient day. Schools typically have the last week of October off as a holiday (referred to as “half term”, there are three in every school year – October, February and May, to split the semesters up a little), so bonfires have kind of become a half term kickoff event, which ruins the history lessons we’ve tried to teach kids and causes no end of confusion.
You may have heard that we have a spectacular lack of public holidays in the UK (fact: there are none in September, October or November – we get the last Monday of August, then the next one is Christmas day!). Remembrance Day also isn’t a public holiday (we call them bank holidays), but it is when we observe the sacrifices of all armed forces throughout history. Latterly, it’s been mainly about remembering the World Wars, and the current fight against terrorism, but it’s meant to be a catch all. Remembrance Day is annually on 11 November, with churches holding special services on the nearest Sunday. There’s a national moment of silence (shops make announcements, and everyone stops in their tracks and thinks for a minute) at 11am on 11 November, and at 11am on the nearest Sunday (last year, I was at a horse show, and everyone stopped when the bell sounded at 11am, the Last Post was played and all those seated in the arena stood – it was quite something). Not a holiday, really, but a mark of respect.
I feel like Boxing Day isn’t a thing in the US. For us, 26 December is a bank holiday, but the significance of it has changed during my lifetime (a little more on that later!). It used to be pretty much exactly like Christmas Day, when the entire country shut down for the day, but now shops are open and the world turns. It’s a weird one, because as it’s a bank holiday, people typically aren’t at work… and yet these days there is an expectation that shops will open. Weird. In my family, it remains sacred – it’s my Grandma’s birthday, so our Christmas routine has always been Christmas Eve (not a holiday) with my Dad’s family, Christmas Day shut in the house by ourselves, and Boxing Day with Mum’s family. Traditionally, Boxing Day was celebrated throughout the Commonwealth, and was a day for employers handing out Christmas Boxes to tradespeople and servants. This is probably a good time to mention that non-moveable feasts (so days like Christmas and Boxing Day which are fixed dates) which are deemed bank holidays mean we get the next weekday off for free if those days fall on a weekend. This year, for example, Boxing Day is a Saturday, so we’ll get 28 December (the nearest Monday) off as a bank holiday as well – yay! The best times are when Christmas Day and Boxing Day are a Saturday and Sunday (which also means that 1 January is a Saturday, and that’s a bank holiday too), which means we get maximum free days off. That would’ve been due to happen in 2016, but it’s a leap year, so we get screwed by the calendar.
This is a controversial one, because firstly, the name is wrong. It’s Mothering Sunday, and is actually a religious festival – Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so technically if you’re a Christian country/household and you don’t celebrate then… well, you’re doing it wrong. It’s like having Christmas in September. Mother’s Day is a commercial thing in the UK, and I like that each parent gets a day and we are able to appreciate and spoil them. But the original significance of Mothering Sunday is about returning to your home parish and the semantics of spring, rather than thanking your Mum for being your Mum. It’s not a bank holiday, but it is a moveable feast – like I said, fourth Sunday in Lent. Being a March baby (and end of March, at that), my birthday has fallen on both Mother’s Day and Easter weekend, which is always awkward, because my Mum grumbles about my birthday overshadowing her day (it doesn’t help that my parents’ wedding anniversary is three days before my birthday – I point out that none of this is my fault on a regular basis!). We do the same things in the UK as you do in the US – older kids/adult offspring tend to prevent their Mums from doing chores (a really easy Mother’s Day gift is to cook Sunday lunch and clear up!), buy a card and a gift or flowers and say thank you. We just do it at the traditionally correct time of year! With the world changing and the traditional family construct shifting, I’d like to see a switch to there being a Parents Day – a day when you thank those who have parented you in some way… and hopefully we could get it away from the calendar clash that is my birthday and their anniversary!
Halloween and – worse – Black Friday are making a charge on the UK and I don’t like it. Halloween has happened steadily since my childhood, and the only day I find to be a bigger load of commercialised rubbish is 14 February (bah humbug). But Black Friday coming over here just demonstrates a clear cultural misunderstanding on our… no, it isn’t, it’s retailer greed. Christmas is a Big Deal over here, and the way I understand it, that’s lessened in the US due to Thanksgiving. We don’t need a Christmas shopping kickoff event, because we go nuts for Christmas anyway. It actually all got quite controversial in 2014, because there were full on riots – people got injured for the sake of TVs they didn’t actually need and only bought to sell on via eBay. It was disgusting. Some bodies are calling for retailers to agree to end the madness this year, but I sadly think it will only get worse. Neither day is a holiday for us – Halloween is an excuse for kids to dress up and annoy their neighbours, and for students and younger adults to binge drink (I’m not so opposed to that, but we have two of those every week – they’re called Friday and Saturday); Black Friday is irrelevant – we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that’s your thing!
Bonus: Sunday trading laws
This is where it gets complicated… as a traditionally-Christian country, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest in the UK. When I was a kid, this meant that nothing was open. Shops did not open on Sundays. At all. I know that’s blowing your minds. Pubs and restaurants tended to open for lunch, but not a single shop was open – supermarkets, local newsagents, clothing stores… you couldn’t buy anything on a Sunday (because there was also no internet). Then the law changed in 1994 and it was a slippery slope from there: the government decided that shops could trade for a certain number of hours based on their square footage – shops with an area smaller than a certain size (it’s… small. It basically means local shops) can open whenever they like, they are able to trade 24/7 if they wish. Shops larger than the stipulated size are only allowed to trade for six hours on Sundays. The law also states that large shops are not allowed to open at all on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday. There are other bits too, but those are the highlights!
Many large shops in big cities open half an hour early for “browsing”, but won’t actually sell you anything until their chosen time starts (retailers choose which six hours they want to trade: in my area, many people are early birds, so most shops are open 10am until 4pm, but there are cities which are a bit more relaxed or prefer later opening, so they go with 11am until 5pm or, what’s common in central London is midday until 6pm). Most shops will restrict themselves to these hours on bank holidays too, partly because they generally have to pay their staff more in order to convince them to work those days.
The law was relaxed for eight joyous weeks during the summer of 2012, to allow retailers nationally to make the most of the fact that the world descended on us for the Olympics – retailers could open for as many hours as they liked, and it was largely perceived as a great success. Of course, not so fun when, like I do, you work in retail (I didn’t at the time, it was brilliant). There are other exemptions to the standard restrictions – shops in places like airports and on motorways are allowed to be open whenever.
The other side to this is the traditional post-Christmas sales: retailers slash prices after Christmas on absolutely everything to get rid of the stuff they didn’t sell beforehand and make way for new stock. When I was little, there was a lovely calm period between Christmas and New Year, where everything was peaceful, and the “January sales” started on 1 January. Now? They start on Boxing Day. My sacred family day! Now, we shop right up until the last minute on Christmas Eve, buying stuff we don’t need rather than relaxing, and then the minute the sun comes up on Boxing Day, it’s absolute bedlam in shops because prices are sometimes more than halved. Everyone spends one day yanking paper off gifts and eating turkey, then goes back to worship at the altar of retail.
The upshot is: we have just as many strange laws and procedures as anyone else. Sometimes, we set off fireworks and celebrate a man who had a big dream and failed catastrophically. On other days, we pin a poppy on our coats and bow our heads in the middle of the street at 11am to thank those who died for us. And almost everyone, at some point in their life, will crawl out of bed on a Sunday, hungry and unprepared for the fact that they can’t get what they want because either the shops aren’t open yet or they’ve already shut. And never again do you put yourself in that vulnerable position of having bare cupboards on a Sunday!