About the SA Blog Network

I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas Dinner: Tracing The Anglo-Saxon Origins Of The Traditional Holiday Feast

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

In response to a piece in Slate by Aisha Harris, Fox News host Megyn Kelly recently declared that Santa Claus (along with Jesus) was a white man. Since Saint Nicholas, the ancestor of Santa Claus, was born in modern Turkey, Kelly’s assertion caused hullabaloo and humor:

Kelly’s white Santa declaration might lead those curious about culinary traditions to wonder why many celebrations of Christ’s birth involve foods more typical of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania than the Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

In the fourth century A.D. Julius I, the bishop of Rome, established December 25th as the official day to commemorate Christ’s birth. The holiday coincided with other pagan festivals throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, including the Roman festival Saturnalia and other celebrations of the winter solstice. Although some wanted to commemorate Christmas in a pious way, the majority were reluctant to give up the traditions associated with the other festivities.

This meant the wholesome traditions commonly associated with Christmas are nothing like Christmas traditions of the past. No decorated trees, elves, or Santa Claus. Instead, it was a time when hierarchies went topsy-turvy–social structures were inverted, and plenty of boozing, debauchery, and raucous behavior ensued. Christmas remained a public festival in the Middle Ages, much to the chagrin of the church. Sixteenth century bishop Hugh Latimer declared, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the English Puritans banned the celebrations. This also occurred in America–since Puritans didn’t celebrate holidays that weren’t sanctioned by The Bible, Christmas festivities were forbidden throughout New England. By the 1800s, Christmas wasn’t even considered a public holiday in many cities throughout both countries; finding people that celebrated the holiday was almost as rare as finding people that actually eat fruitcake.

Following its near extinction, several changes in the beginning of the nineteenth century lead to a revival and restructuring of Christmas in Britain and across the pond. They included the expansion of the middle class, increased consumerism, and a new conception of family and childhood. Old traditions were replaced with new ones and it was beginning to look a lot like the Christmas celebrated today–decorations, games, and gift giving were part of the festivities. It was also beginning to taste a lot like Christmas; although feasting had been part of celebrations in the past, the foods prepared in Victorian England are some of the same ones commonly eaten in modern festivities.

Literature also influenced the newly revamped Christmas. On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. He may not have been Father Christmas but Charles Dickens is often credited with being the father of the tradition as we know it by influencing how the holiday is celebrated, including the food that is served. According to culinary historian Cathy Kaufman, “Dickens did not single-handedly invent the signature Cratchit meal; his legacy was in popularizing a very specific menu to the exclusion of other foods historically served at Christmas. His story was a roadmap for middle- and working- class pleasures at the precise moment when both meal structures and the nature of Christmas celebrations were changing.”

Food makes several appearances throughout A Christmas Carol, offering metaphors that give Scrooge a taste of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. When the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge, he sits atop a throne surrounded by festive dishes:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

The story also gives historical insight to the preparation of the dishes. For the family dinner, Mrs. Cratchit prepared a Christmas pudding at the laundress’s next door that was “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

There is often a debate as to whether there was turkey or goose in the story. To settle things, it was turkey. And it was goose. Both were included and their selection tell a tale of social class in Britain. Prior to the Victorian era, meats such as beef and rabbit were commonly served as part of Christmas festivities. At the time of the novella’s publishing, turkey was reserved for those in the upper class who could afford it–this didn’t include the Cratchits. They saved all year for their Christmas goose and when it was served Bob Cratchit proclaimed, “There never was such a goose…Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.”

Dickens also used food to demonstrate Scrooge’s transformation, part of his redemption is getting a gift for the Cratchits. He decides to get them a true luxury item and called to a street urchin: “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”

A Christmas Carol concludes with a traditional Christmas drink. Dickens was known to be a fan of punch and different kinds made their way into his literary works. The story ends with Ebenezer Scrooge promising to share a mulled wine holiday punch with Bob Cratchit:

A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!—Ebeneezer Scrooge

Smoking Bishop

(from Drinking with Dickens, written by the great grandson of Charles Dickens, Cedric Dickens)

* Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit.

* Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.

* Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine.

* Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses.

* Drink the mixture, and keep Christmas well!

Image Credits: Both by John Leech via Wikimedia Commons

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 17 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. RobLL 12:47 pm 12/24/2013

    For a more extended discussion of this see Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas”. A fun read, and informative too.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Uncle.Al 3:51 pm 12/24/2013

    A Puritan is consumed by the thought that somebody, somewhere is having a good time. Puritan pillories are diagnostic of their crescent moon sneers. Though you might be publicly humiliated under sunlight, it was after dark that your nether regions were given their due.

    God save us from the do-gooders.

    Link to this
  3. 3. InterestInMaths2 9:39 am 12/25/2013

    Commercialization might have something to to do with it. :)

    Link to this
  4. 4. L_Eplett 12:21 pm 12/25/2013

    Glad you mentioned Nissenbaum’s book, RobLL–I have it in the links above but it deserves a space of its own. Hard to think of Christmas in a different way after reading it!

    Link to this
  5. 5. M Tucker 6:11 pm 12/26/2013

    “By the 1800s, Christmas wasn’t even considered a public holiday in many cities throughout both countries; finding people that celebrated the holiday was almost as rare as finding people that actually eat fruitcake.”

    Good for a quick chuckle but the 1800′s and the 19th century are one and the same!!!

    “…beginning of the nineteenth century lead to a revival and restructuring of Christmas in Britain and across the pond.”

    So it wasn’t even being celebrated but it was enjoying a revival of celebration…

    What was good ‘ol Fezziwig up to then??? You know a generation before Scrooge was visited by those wonderful sprits…

    Link to this
  6. 6. L_Eplett 6:22 pm 12/26/2013

    Ha! See your point, M Tucker–thought it may have been confusing the way I had worded it. I meant that Christmas was celebrated before 1800s, (as mentioned in the previous paragraphs) then it was banned but came back but in a reinterpreted form. Hope that clarifies, sorry–was a little rushed when I wrote this one!

    Link to this
  7. 7. M Tucker 2:53 pm 12/27/2013

    I was mostly confused by: “By the 1800s, Christmas wasn’t even considered a public holiday in many cities throughout both countries”

    In the 1843 “A Christmas Carol” it is quite clear Cratchit is getting a paid day off…is that historically accurate? Do we have any public records that mention London merchants and businessmen giving employees a paid day off?

    I go back to Scrooge as a young man working for Fezziwig, maybe 45 years earlier (supposing old Scrooge might be something in the range of 65). So that would be around the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. Fezziwig enjoyed a fun filled and wholesome Christmas party for his employees. Is that close to being historically accurate?

    It would be good to know…

    All this nonsense about St Nicholas…how did that Greek living in Turkey become the bearded white gentleman of the Netherlands and Belgium folklore? That is the question!!! That is what the idiots on Fox should talk about. That is what Stewart should have investigated. When did we move his day of gift giving from Dec 6 to the 25th??? Is that an American thing? We need to investigate American traditions and how they came about for it to be meaningful to Americans. What I love is associating the old Saint with pagan elves and magical reindeer. Priceless!!!

    Anyway, I know you are a food person and I did enjoy this piece.

    Link to this
  8. 8. L_Eplett 5:33 pm 12/27/2013

    Yes, the reindeer, Mr and Mrs Claus, elves–once you start thinking about it, the whole celebration is certainly whimsical but maybe historically detached.

    Really interesting point about Fezziwig’s party–it’s true that it would have been around 1800 +/- a few years. At that point in time, from what I understand, it wasn’t a public holiday but with Christmas celebrations gaining momentum, I’d think it would be a safe guess to say in the next 40 years it would have been at least a paid day off, if not a public holiday. (To compare, in US, Alabama was first to make it holiday in 1836 and then became nationwide in 1870.) If anyone knows a definitive date for England, I’d also love to know.

    Again, the more I read, the more I wish I had more time to spend on this topic…maybe sensing a sequel in the future!

    Link to this
  9. 9. M Tucker 7:33 pm 12/27/2013

    I’m wondering how important Santa was for the folks in Alabama in 1836. When did Santa get the gift giving focus in the US? I kind of remember that in the Laura Ingalls books the kids knew the gifts were coming from their parents. Maybe I’m wrong about that but obviously in Dickens the gifts are not coming from Santa or St Nicholas.

    Link to this
  10. 10. taffazull 1:11 am 12/28/2013

    Oranges do not grow in Kashmir(Winters are cold as in U.K.) but my brother got a small plant from India and planted it in the garden.The grafted plant did not survive the winter but the root stock survived and it now produces small bitter oranges with thick hard scented rind in December. I wonder if the oranges are the same as the Seville orange mentioned in the receipt.Also have they to be baked along with the rind as the scent is strongest in the rind?

    Link to this
  11. 11. L_Eplett 11:16 am 12/28/2013

    taffazull, I can believe it about the weather, imagine it could get quite chilly there! And yes, the oranges should be baked and pierced with the cloves afterward while the oranges are still whole, rind in tact.

    M Tucker–whoa, whoa, whoa, whooooaaa–Santa doesn’t deliver gifts??!! I looked into this assertion of yours, and it seems you are correct. I was duped along with the Wilders. There is a book excerpted from the unabridged version of Little House where they’re worried he won’t make it due to the weather. Santa’s migration from Turkey to North Pole is a whole story too long to get into here but, from what I understand, he started to become popular in the US with The Night Before Christmas, which was published in 1823.

    Link to this
  12. 12. bungay lad 11:17 am 12/28/2013

    Since turkey’s were domesticated in the New World, did the Spanish introduce them to Europe or did the English bring them from New England?

    Link to this
  13. 13. L_Eplett 3:43 pm 12/30/2013

    That’s exactly the question that no one seems to have a definitive answer for, bungay lad–some say they were introduced via the Spanish, other popular belief is that William Strickland brought them back with him following a trip in 1526

    Link to this
  14. 14. hkraznodar 5:39 pm 12/30/2013

    Since the creator of Santa Claus was a Greek living in Turkey, perhaps Santa is well tanned with brown eyes, brown hair (before it went grey) and speaks Turkish or Greek as his first language. When the Turks purged the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds in the 1920s perhaps our Turkish Santa moved to the North pole to escape being murdered or simply because his land was stolen.

    Once there the lack of sun exposure caused him to get very pale.

    Link to this
  15. 15. hkraznodar 5:40 pm 12/30/2013

    I also forgot, in some far Northern countries Santa also went bonkers and hunted evil people and killed them. Pagan holidays were fun weren’t they?

    Link to this
  16. 16. taffazull 12:32 am 12/31/2013

    @L_Eplett Thanks for the information and as far as the discussion about Turkey is concerned there is a wonderful article ” The turkey’s Turkey connection” by Mark Forsyth in N.Y.Times Nov 27th issue which refers to both the bird and the country . The article was written for “Thanksgiving Day” as the Americans are very proud of their gift to the bird eaters and in whose honor they hold a feast every year even not waiting for Xmas in their impatience to gobble it up!

    Link to this
  17. 17. L_Eplett 12:35 pm 01/3/2014

    Thanks for sharing the article, taffazull–really loved it!!!!

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article