Customs of England

Marriage and Family

Marriage is legal at age 16 but usually takes place when people are in their mid- to late 20s. Fewer people are getting married than in the past and those who do are marrying later. It has become increasingly popular in recent years for couples to live together before or instead of marriage.

English families are small (one or two children are the norm). Women are having fewer children and are waiting longer to have them. In the past three decades, a substantial number of women have begun working outside the home. The divorce rate has risen, as has the number of single-parent families.

Since the early 1980s, the division between rich and poor has grown, but the middle class remains the largest section of society. Home ownership is high—about two-thirds of the people own their own houses or flats (apartments).


Since the 1960s, the English diet has become more diverse; the English now eat a wide variety of European and Asian foods. Many traditional foods such as beef and potatoes have given way to poultry and pasta dishes. Fast food has also become more available, and hamburger restaurants now rival the traditional fish-and-chip shops in popularity. Numerous Chinese and Indian restaurants and pizza houses provide take-away service, and many pubs (public houses) serve anything from snacks to full meals as well as alcoholic beverages. Traditional English dishes include roast beef and yorkshire pudding (a baked batter usually served in muffin-sized portions) and steak and kidney pie.

The English generally eat three meals a day. A traditional English breakfast consists of any or all of the following: bacon, sausages, grilled or fried tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs, or toast. Kippers (smoked herring) or black pudding (blood pudding) may also appear on the menu. However, fewer people now eat a cooked breakfast on a regular basis, preferring various combinations of cereal, toast, juice or fruit, and tea or coffee. The midday meal is usually referred to as lunch and the evening meal as dinner or, when it is less formal, as supper. Working-class people tend to call the midday meal dinner and the meal they have in the early evening “tea.” The tradition of afternoon tea, when tea, biscuits, and cakes are enjoyed at about 4 pm, has declined. Similarly, many people no longer have more than a light lunch or snack in the middle of the day.


The English often say “How do you do?” or “Pleased to meet you” when meeting for the first time. People usually shake hands when first introduced or when greeting and parting in business and other formal situations. Otherwise many English people will simply say “Hello” when they see each other. Among friends, women are often kissed (by men and women) lightly on one cheek. The use of first names is widespread; titles such as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” are being used less frequently, even when children address adults.

It is customary to respect people’s privacy by telephoning before visiting. When invited to a meal by friends, guests often bring a bottle of wine or another small gift.


Wintertime national sports are football (soccer) and Rugby Union. Rugby League, which is played mainly in the north, switched from a winter to a summer season in 1996. One of the most popular spectator sports is horseracing (over jumps in the winter and on a flat track in the summer). The traditional summer sport is cricket. Modern lawn tennis was first played in England, and the rules of modern boxing came from the country as well. The English are avid walkers and also enjoy golf and fishing. Gardening is a favorite way to relax and represents a huge industry (gardening books can become best-sellers). Other sports with enthusiastic participants are sailing, rowing, squash, snooker, and darts.

The pub remains a popular place to socialize with friends. Relaxing in the home, however, is still more popular. With the exception of U.S. citizens, the British watch more television than anyone else in the world and claim that one reason for this is the high quality of British programming. Videos are also popular, but many people equally enjoy seeing films at the cinema. All types of music and theater are well supported. The country is also rich in art galleries and museums.

Holidays and Celebrations

Shrove Tuesday is known as Pancake Day in England. It was traditionally a day to make pancakes and use up all the butter and eggs that would not be allowed during Lent, which starts the following day, Ash Wednesday. Some families still make pancakes at home on Pancake Day. In an annual race held in Olney since 1945, women run carrying a pan and a pancake that must be flipped three times.

Mothering Sunday, traditionally the fourth Sunday in Lent, is a day to visit and bring gifts to one’s mother. On 1 April, April Fool’s tricks are played.

May Day is celebrated on the first Monday of May. On Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night (5 November), fireworks and bonfires on which effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned celebrate Fawkes's failure in his attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament on 4 November 1605.

On the second Sunday in November, Remembrance Day honors veterans. Red paper poppies are sold by the British Legion to raise money for veterans.

During Christmas dinner (25 December), the traditional “cracker” is supposed to be laid beside each plate. Those seated next to each other pull the ends of each other’s crackers, which make a loud bang! Inside there is a crepe-paper hat and a trinket. Boxing Day (26 December), so called for small earthenware boxes that tradespeople and civil servants traditionally carried around to collect tips, is now simply a leisure day and a very busy day in the sporting calendar. Many offices, but not shops, close for all of the Christmas-to-New Year period.

New Year’s Day (1 January), Good Friday (the Friday preceding Easter), and Easter Monday (the Monday following Easter) are three of England’s traditional “bank holidays,” on which banks and other businesses close. The other bank holidays include May Day, the spring and summer bank holidays (the last Monday in May and the last Monday in August, respectively), Christmas Day, and Boxing Day.

Most employees get four to five weeks’ annual vacation. Most people take their main two- or three-week vacation in July or August. A sizable minority also take a winter vacation, usually to go skiing or to somewhere warm and sunny. Short trips of two to five days to other parts of the country or to continental Europe have become increasingly popular.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas