All I Want for Christmas is Food!

Katie Hollands on Christmas food traditions, giving us a considerable serving of history.

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Come Christmas, what’s on your table? Are there bowls overflowing with cranberry sauce? Plates filled with pigs in blankets? A prize bird gleaming on its platter? Traditions differ, but some dishes find their feature every year. 

For most, the star of the Christmas feast is the turkey: the plump, golden-skinned bird that takes pride of place. But different birds have had their place; peacocks, pheasants and ducks all had their time on the table and before Victorian times, a goose was the typical centrepiece of the Christmas meal. 

Henry VIII, a man then synonymous with decadence, may have been the first in England to try a turkey, but it did not come into fashion until Charles Dickens chose to emphasise the immense philanthropy of Scrooge’s gift to the Cratchits by swapping their traditional goose for turkey. No expense would be spared, and thus the Christmas turkey fell into vogue. Isabella Beeton, author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and the Victorian authority on all things to do with housekeeping, bolstered this new trend by proclaiming that Christmas for the middle class “would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey”. 

Two of the more controversial members of a Christmas dinner, Yorkshire puddings and Bread Sauce, both find their origins in leftovers. Although many would argue Yorkshire puddings should only be eaten with roast beef, they actually originated from the drippings of fat off mutton as it roasted. As dripping fell into a pan filled with a batter, a Yorkshire pudding – enormous by today’s standards – would grow. Anyone with a food-strict upbringing similar to my own would never imagine a Yorkshire pudding on their plate come Christmas, yet this favourite continues to divide the country. It takes just a quick google search to discover the years of articles that have piled up from yuletides arguing pro-YP or against!

Yorkshire puddings’ more traditional, but stranger cousin is bread sauce. The beige, lumpy, liquid-like substance is not much more than gloop to those who haven’t been brought up with it. But to a fan, it’s a haven of stodgy delight. Bread sauce also originates from leftovers. In the Medieval period, soups were thickened with leftover bread, rather than flour as used today. These soups were prepared for Christmas feasts and evolved into the bay/nutmeg/clove flavoured slop (can you tell I wasn’t raised on it?) that so many will douse their turkey with this week.

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As with anything that has its roots in the dinners of yore, the veg on our plates at Christmas have been shaped simply by whatever our ancestors managed to grow. Brussel sprouts found their way to the UK from Belgium, being the only cold-hardy green around. Parsnips, the preferred partner to sprouts, are harvested in the winter. Their first frost causes sugars to be released from their starch stores, giving them their characteristic sweetness (you won’t find that fun fact in your cracker). 

Christmas desserts may be the most reliably underwhelming part of the day. Dessert has the opportunity to hold such creativity and glee, and yet the dry, misshapen lumps turned out year after year hold nothing but an unbelievable amount of fruit. They also hold a considerable serving of history. 

The myth of each of the thirteen fillings of Christmas cake representing the 12 apostles and Jesus is a fun tale, but the most interesting story is with mince pies. First, let’s clear it up – yes, mincemeat did once contain real meat. Dating back to the crusades when meat/spiced/fruit pies found their way back to Europe, mince pies evolved from rectangular “coffins” to round Christmas Pyes that were often found at bountiful Christmas feasts. They were famously held in disdain by Cromwell’s Puritan government because of the ‘more-gluttony-less-Jesus’ they seemed to represent. By the Victorian period, mincemeat was being prepared and jarred earlier and earlier in the year to allow flavours to mature, and hence, meat was left at the wayside – thankfully for us. 

These Victorian mince pies largely look like those we have today – buttery pastry, spiced fruit (and suet) filling, decoration with festive designs on top. Though their status as a delicious treat may be divisive, mince pies, with their undeniably Christmassy aroma, remind you it’s a special time of the year, and for that they fulfil their role as a Christmas food tradition. 

Whether you guzzle gravy or put away potatoes, your food has been through a lot to make it onto your table – so forget the Queen’s speech and tune into your food come Friday. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.