Most of us love the presents, the seasonal films, the chance to spend time with family and friends. But for millions across Britain one of the most thrilling parts of the Christmas festivities takes place long after the presents have been opened. Christmas Dinner! Food at Christmas is a long, global and often surprising tradition and has become a staple part of our Christmas celebrations. There is truly no better cure for the stress of a Christmas Eve visit to the Arndale than a big roast turkey and stuffing or Christmas pudding and brandy sauce. But it turns out Christmas dinner does not just taste great, it also hides an enthralling history.
What better place to start than with the centrepiece of any Christmas dinner, the turkey! Before Britain adopted the turkey, a peacock, boar or goose was the centrepiece of their Christmas feast. But in 1526 William Strickland managed to get six turkeys imported from America. Thanks to the efforts of these original six the turkey established itself as a more practical, tasty and cheaper alternative. Despite this, it was not until the 1940s that the turkey over took the goose as the most popular choice for the British Christmas table. And by the start of this century over 87% of British families chose a turkey at Christmas. Turkey remains a relatively cheap meat and can feed the whole family. Perhaps more importantly, roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, Brussels sprouts and stuffing all combine with turkey perfectly! Christmas and the turkey has been a match made in heaven.
Another essential part of any Christmas feast is the pudding, which has a much stronger historical tie with Britain than the turkey. The Christmas Pudding originated in 14th century England not as a pudding at all. Originally it was known as ‘frumenty’ and was similar to the consistency of a modern day bowl of porridge. The traditional ingredients of frumenty were similar to those used for its modern protégé – with beef, mutton, raisins, currents, prunes, spices and wine all in the mix. Ironically it was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas period. By 1595 frumenty was slowly changing into a pudding – thickened with eggs and breadcrumbs and with dried fruit helping to add that famous sweeter edge. By 1650 it was established as a Christmas desert, but banned soon after by Puritans who saw it as ‘poor custom’. Thankfully by 1714 King George liked it so much he ordered its reestablishment – And by the Victorian era the Christmas pudding began to resemble the desert we know and love today.
Yule logs are perhaps not as universally popular as the turkey or the Christmas pudding, but remain a proud and popular addition to many dining tables at Christmas. Originally the Yule log was not even edible. The Celts believed that for the last twelve days in December the sun stood still. If a log was kept burning for these 12 days they thought the sun would move again and hence the days would grow longer, which was good for their crops. However seeing as Celts were generally pagans it is fair to say the Yule log went through somewhat of a transformation. For Christians all over Europe the Yule log symbolised the fire in the stable where Jesus was born. Every Christmas Eve a log would be decorated with ribbons and dragged back to the fireplace where it would be blessed and set alight. ‘Bringing in the Yule log’ became an activity associated with harbouring good luck for the coming year. In modern Britain the Yule log is simply a cake shaped like a log… perhaps more practical for those suburban dwellers amongst us.
Finally we have the Mince pie! The one Christmas food you can get away with eating before Christmas day. And much like the Christmas pudding, it seems our modern-day sweet tooth, coupled with an international influence, has seen it transformed. Historically the mince pie was a huge dish filled with rabbit, ox, hare and pigeon meat amongst others – and was known as the Christmas Pye. However during the medieval crusades spices from the Middle East were added to the Pye and eventually replaced the meat entirely. Oliver Cromwell banned them during his reign, but they were soon reintroduced and made smaller so they could be served to individual guests at dinner parties. The Wayfarer Pie as they were formally known has stayed with us ever since.