Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without migration

Illustration by Elisa Cunningham

For International Migrants Day 2019, IMIX commissioned a special illustration by the artist Elisa Cunningham to highlight what really makes up a traditional British Christmas.


The classic British Christmas is something people up and down the country look forward to. From decorating the tree to stockings filled with presents to roast turkey with all the trimmings – it just wouldn’t feel the same without these traditions.

But is there really such a thing as a traditional ‘British’ Christmas? In a country as diverse as the UK which has been influenced over thousands of years by different cultures, countries and travellers – our annual festivities have similarly adopted an array of dishes and customs from all over the world.

Who knew that the much-loved Christmas poinsettia originally came from Mexico? Most people are clued up about turkeys which first came from New England in the United States – but did you know that having cranberries alongside the meat probably started with native Americans? The chocolate yule log is a delicious treat from the patisserie bakers of Paris, carrots come from the Netherlands, parsnips from Germany and Brussel sprouts grow in the Mediterranean.

Many of our annual traditions originated somewhere else completely. Christmas trees, a core component of British festive décor started off in medieval Germany and it was Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert who really popularised the decorating of a tree. One of the best-kept secrets of the season might be that the original figure Brits call Father Christmas was a benevolent Saint Nicholas who lived in Myra, Asia Minor, now known as Turkey.

What about more recent, popular customs like the wearing of bright, garish Christmas jumpers? This could have been started by Scandinavian and Icelandic fishermen in the nineteenth century needing to keep warm. But we can probably blame ‘ugly sweater parties’ in Vancouver – or American sit-coms of the 1980s for truly making these statement sweaters a staple of UK office Christmas party attire.

So, it seems our traditional ‘British’ Christmas actually contains elements from all over the world – and it is all the more brilliant, fun and delicious because of it. This evolution of the celebrations has led to a festival rich with delicacies, treats, surprises and even a little wonder.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without migration – but also Britain wouldn’t be Britain without migration.

At its best, Britain is a country which embraces and welcomes people who migrate from other countries whether it is for love, work, study or safety. Our country has learnt from, grown and changed as a result of millions and millions of people who have moved and settled here over thousands of years. What has made Britain, Britain is this incredible mix of cultures and people in our society. Migrants have made our country richer – economically, socially, culturally and across the whole of society. We think this is something to be truly proud of.

As the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: ‘Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family’.

On International Migrant’s Day we choose to celebrate people who have migrated – while still remembering that many continue to face huge and complex challenges. It’s not easy to leave your home, start again in an unknown country, learn a new language and become a part of a totally different society; particularly when that environment has been made purposefully hostile.

In our work at IMIX, we have the incredible privilege of meeting people every day who have done just that and have the most incredible stories to tell. We believe these stories need to be told and heard as widely as possible, now more than ever. Stories remind us of our connection, our shared humanity. Stories can change hearts and minds, stories can shift the landscape.

Today, and every day we stand with and celebrate migrants – and pledge to do all we can to bring their stories and voices into the light.

(Here’s the full list of items in our International Migrants Day illustration and where they originated from: Yule log – Paris, France, Poinsettia – Mexico, Sprouts – Mediterranean/Brussels, Turkey – New England, USA, Carrots – The Netherlands, Potatoes – Peru/Americas, Parsnips – Germany, Cranberries – New England – probably first consumed with turkeys by native Americans, Figs and Almonds – Middle East, Port – Portugal, Brandy – South West France, Stocking/Presents – Turkey).

Author Katherine Maxwell-Rose

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