When learning English in an English-speaking city like Oxford or Cape Town, you are bound to come into contact with traditions in your host family. You might find you’re staying with a host family in December who celebrates Christmas. Whether you’re religious or not, you may find that the festive season in December waves a magical wand over the world and as one sees the Christmas lights twinkling and smells the chestnuts roasting, the world feels just a little gentler.

Christmas in the English-speaking world finds its roots in the Victorian era and Queen Victoria’s love of Prince Albert. From him, she adopted many of the German Christmas traditions. In fact, the use of a Christmas tree is traced back to a picture of the royal family with their tree at Windsor Castle in the ‘Illustrated London News’ in 1848. By the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common. On that note, one of my personal favourite traditions is the advent calendar.

An advent calendar is a card or poster with twenty-four small windows, one to be opened each day from December the 1st until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture or a small chocolate. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s and soon spread throughout Europe and North America.

It is considered a fun way of counting down the days until Christmas and many advent calendars today have no religious content. Now, alongside traditional advent calendars depicting angels and biblical figures you get calendars with anything from sports to animal themes. I am sure you have come across a couple of these while doing your holiday shopping.

‘Behind the door pickle’, is another strange festive tradition.  The story is that in Germany it is customary to hang a pickle-shaped ornament on the Christmas tree. Traditionally it was the last decoration to be hung, or at least that is what marketers in the 1880s tried to insist when Woolworth stores began importing vegetable-shaped glass ornaments from Germany. The trouble with the theory is that not many people in Germany have actually heard about it. So the origins of the tradition are probably American, as many are.