ADVERTISEMENT
Food Matters

Food Matters

Giving science a seat at the table

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

|

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

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Email this Article

X