In the US, Christmas traditionally begins after the Thanksgiving turkey is carved and Santa Claus rides down 6th Avenue in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade–and even though I’m 3000 miles away, I’m celebrating Thanksgiving this week with turkey sandwiches and challah bread (well, an attempt at challah bread–let’s just say I’m not headed for the Bake Off tent anytime soon.)
In the UK, Christmas season is marked by mince pies in the grocery store, hearing ‘Fairytale of New York’ on the radio, and the yearly competition over which Christmas advert will be the most memorable. Oh, and it usually starts in early November.
Christmas adverts in the UK are a big deal, with big budgets to match the expensive ad slots–they’re as expensive and high-profile as Superbowl ads, and most Brits don’t consider it ‘officially Christmas’ until the adverts are on. John Lewis started it all with their 2011 advert ‘The Wait,’ featuring a little boy waiting for Christmas with a piano cover of ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.’ That foolproof blend of cute kids and musical nostalgia has resulted in sucker-punch emotional ads for years on end. Monty the Penguin gives the first ten minutes of Up a run for its money. Quite a few of the cover versions (and their original songs) soar to the top of the charts in Britain after the advert release, and social media goes abuzz for the advert premiere (sucks for this poor Virginia Tech professor who snagged the @johnlewis Twitter handle years before the store did, but he seems to take the mistaken identity in stride.)
And the tradition continues this year, with adverts ranging from the sweet to the sappy to the self-referential. It’s hard to say so far which one will be the most notable of the bunch, but I decided I’d give a rundown of this year’s ads filling Britain with (premature to an American) Christmas cheer.
The latest release is John Lewis’ ‘sometimes a gift is more than just a gift’ campaign, with a reverse-chronological look at Elton John’s career and the Christmas gift of a piano that began it all. You’re gonna get misty.
It’s gotten a lot of flack for not being ‘Christmassy enough,’ but does Britain really get to judge when the punchline of this year’s Aldi advert, is, um:
Despite John Lewis setting the standard, there’s (obviously) no requirement for these ads to take themselves seriously. Though all the ads I feature here feel very ‘British’ to me, there’s something about a carrot fighting a French-accented parsnip that seems extra British.
Lots of adverts evoke the classic traditions of Christmas, from the Queen’s television address to nativity plays. This year’s Sainsbury’s ad features a charming performance:
This ad is quite cute (the kids’ real parents are in the audience), but when it comes to Love Actually references, I prefer the real thing.
Boots keeps the musical theme going, even though its schlocky plot and remake of Robbie Williams’ ‘She’s the One’ results in what feels like a value-range rehash of the John Lewis formula. Hey, that lipstick is nice, though!
Tesco uses their Christmastime slogan of ‘everyone’s welcome’ to focus on the traditional foods that unite (and divide) Britons on Christmas, from turkey to sprouts to, y’know, cake on fire. Christmas!
And just to prove that the UK isn’t all that different from the US, of course there were protests against this ad for promoting a ‘diversity agenda’…. so there’s that.
Some companies try to use the massive platform of Christmas ads to promote a particular message, and as a result, we have the most talked-about ad of the season, Iceland’s environmentalist fable about palm oil and deforestation:
What’s notable about this advert is that it’s actually been banned from television broadcast. The film is originally from Greenpeace (Iceland just rebranded it), and because Greenpeace is recognised as a political lobbying group, a private company’s use of the ad conflicts with British broadcasting standards. But Iceland is taking the ban in stride–it’s probably gotten the most press out of any Christmas advert this year, and Iceland is releasing an animatronic orangutan on the streets of London to keep the conversation going, so hey, there’s that.
I think what I like about Christmas in the UK is that it’s seen as a more… collective holiday than it’s seen in the US. Coming from a country where there always seems to be a ‘War on Christmas’ debate, it’s refreshing to see the British perspective, where the holiday can be celebrated however it’s relevant to you, whether it involves religion, family, gifts, Robbie Williams cover versions, or crude Aldi carrots. Or maybe all of those.
But I still hate mince pies. Sorry. 🤷