For those who could not afford such opulence, the hospitality was taken seriously. Landowners and employers gave gifts of meat, fuel and beer to the poor.
Mention of specific Christmas pies also appears during the Tudor period. These were sometimes the meat-heavy equivalents of today’s poultry roast, but it was also a name for minced pies, made with up to 50 percent meat, filled with sugar, spices and all that very nice – and very rich. Plum potting was another seasonal food (like minced peas, eaten all winter), consisting of a large beef stock, breadcrumbs, spices and dried fruit.
And then there was the splash. Excess drink was largely part of the season. So much so that the 17th-century Puritan writer William Prynne said that Jesus, based on Christmas cheer, could be perceived as “a glutton, an epicurean, a wine-drinker, a devil.”
On the podcast – Christmas party with Annie Gray
In our festive series in four parts, Annie Gray takes Ellie Cawthorne on a culinary journey through the history of Christmas food. Listen to the full series now:
The Georgian Christmas dinner: the end of profit?
“The old Christmas is coming,” cried Charles Lamb in 1826. “He does not come with his usual gait, he has shrunk 9 inches in circumference, but is still a lustful guy.”
In the late 18th century, Christmas was a slippery slope. For enthusiasts like Lam, it was a season of partying, a chance to get very drunk and party. After all, it was only a few generations ago that Parliament had tried and failed to reduce it all to the status of any other Sunday. But for the Georgian fashionable elites, the Puritans had had something of a point. All the restless partying and forced merriment seemed to them a bit plebiscite.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the twelve days had fallen to one, sometimes two, days of profit. All that feast was now concentrated in one meal, Christmas dinner, which was generally held around noon. 17.00 on the 25th (later for the very fashionable). At its core were the two edible emblems of England, trotted out to any festive feast and deeply patriotic.
Roast beef and plum pudding appeared as part of the upper-class three-course à la Française (where each dish is served at the same time) meal. The beef was fried in front of a roaring bonfire, while the pudding was a cousin for plum pottage, sharing the dried fruit and spice with it, but now mixed with suet and flour and cooked in a cloth for a cannonball-shaped pudding. The two were consumed as complementary flavors and surrounded by a variety of other dishes, including seasonal vegetables and a lot of game. Both were a demonstration of wealth.
Other specific Christmas foods included minced pies, served again as part of the main meal; turkey and other farmed birds; and Twelfth Cake. The latter was, as the name suggests, eaten twelfth night. It was a rich fruitcake, iced and decorated in often eerie shapes. In the early Georgian period, a bean was hidden inside and the finder became king for the night. By the 1780s, the beans had been replaced by party-goers who bought packages of grade cards. They were available in all price ranges and very popular.
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The Victorian Christmas dinner: approxcreates the modern Christmas
Victorians have a reputation for creating the modern Christmas. That’s pretty much right, and Christmas became both more family-friendly and more commercialized in the nearly 64 years Queen Victoria sat on the throne. It is the Victorians that we owe the rebranding of Twelfth Cake to Christmas cake, and plum pudding to Christmas pudding. The decoupling of the pudding from roast beef, as well as its location towards the end of the meal, would have been unthinkable in 1837, but was largely completed in 1901.
For the rich, beef remained a large part of the Christmas spread along with venison roast. Meat in general was prestigious. The poor joined goose clubs and saved all year for their Christmas goose. I Charles Dickens’ A Christmas song, Bob Cratchit’s bird would have come from such a source.
Stuffed and fried in front of the campfire, the normal accompaniment was potatoes and Brussels sprouts, as the first printed recipes appeared in the 1840s. The wealthy still preferred non-seasonal products, including asparagus. Jerusalem artichoke soup also enjoyed a short fashion as a Christmas appetizer.
The style of service also changed, from the simultaneous serving of many dishes at once, which the Georgians had preferred, to the new, sequential style known as à la Russe. But it went slowly, especially at Christmas, for the lid from a moaning table was hard to resist (and à la Russe was ridiculously complicated and expensive for the vast majority of people, as it required many servants).
Queen Victoria adopted the new style in the 1870s. Her Christmas dinners were remarkably consistent. Roast beef, woodcock pie, a raised wild pie, a stuffed boar head and a giant brawn (a vertical slice of pork, rolled and poached) appeared every year on the sideboard. The main meal included sprouts, game and minced pies, now with very little meat.
Another common dish on the upper class tables was boiled turkey. In 1861, journalist and cookbook author Isabella Beeton wrote: “Christmas dinner, with the middle class in this empire, would hardly be a Christmas dinner without its turkey.” However, it was still far from the majority election.
WW2 Christmas dinner: mock meals and chronic deficiency
In many ways, it was the stress of life in wartime, and the 14 years of rationing that came with it that cemented the Christmas menu in England. (Irish Christmas remained more beef-based, and the Welsh favored goose, while Hogmanay in Scotland was more important.) Because so many foods that had come to symbolize Christmas were unattainable during the war, when they returned, it was to rejoice. Meals also became smaller in the 1950s, while some traditional dishes fell away. Of course, the meals people ate were still varied, but the ideal Christmas menus printed in books and newspapers became increasingly rigid.
In 1939, Christmas was not unnecessarily challenging, but with 1940 came the rationing. Although the ration would fluctuate, for most of the next decade – and beyond – there was a tendency to have very limited fat, sugar, eggs and meat. Even the things that remained unratified (or were later limited by a points system), such as dried fruit, were rare.
But Christmas was incredibly important for morale, and at a time when diaries and letters are full of food – getting it, longing for it, missing it – dinner was still in focus. Writers and TV stations rushed to suggest ways to cope, from cream powder instead of eggs (disgusting), to dried eggs (disgusting), to a wide and rather optimistic selection of “spotted” dishes. Spot meat was based on potato and sausage meat, and fake marzipan on dried beans. The Ministry of Food remained optimistic, declaring that fruit bowls could easily be replaced with vegetables: “The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich beets’ rich beets, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delicious as it tastes.”
Christmas dinners prone to meat and lots of vegetables. Those who had space kept rabbits or chickens to be sacrificed to the banquet table. You for Victory were in full swing, and potatoes, carrots and other lightly grown specimens were ubiquitous. Restaurants also remained open, albeit limited, and boomed. The rich did better, as always – the Savoy and other such hotels fetched game and salmon from their customers and plundered their well-stocked pantry. But even there, the Christmas puddings were more carrot than fruit, and the cream came from a can.
21st Century Christmas: oout with the new, in with the old
If you read the newspapers in December, you may be forgiven for believing that the British Christmas meal is completely uniform: turkey, fried potatoes and sprouts, with Christmas pudding as a result, plus minced pies and Christmas cake. But only about 70 percent of us eat turkey, even fewer choose sprouts, and Christmas pudding is in decline.
But for many of us, today’s typical Christmas meal is almost identical to menus from the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s. And in the idealized presentation with all the main courses served on the table at once, it is not so far away from the dinners 250 years ago.
2020 was challenging, and 2021 could be the year of either sudden shortage or panicked pastry. Will this bring about greater change?
These are not the only problems facing Christmas dinner in the 21st century. The average meal is around 5,000 calories and meat-heavy: reflecting earlier, more physical eras where such celebrations were much-anticipated one-offs. And it requires an enormous amount of work (often still dependent on female labor), because when it came together, from about 1870 to 1940, in middle-class homes, servants – even if it was only a daily charcoal – were still wanted, if not the norm.
A busy through Christmas dinners in the past show that our seemingly traditional meal is anything but. Whether rich or poor, we have eaten a wide variety of foods at Christmas in previous centuries, and although that area has narrowed in the last 200 years, the weight of certain staples is more on the mind than on the table. The ideal Christmas dinner from the 21st century is old-fashioned, partly because it is a time of huge nostalgia and memory creation, and partly precisely because we only eat it once a year.
However, it does not have to be that way. If we truly embrace the past, our repertoire would expand enormously. Then try the puffed pies, hearty stews, glazed vegetables and rich ice cream. Because if we really liked turkey and side dishes, would we eat it more than once a year?
Dr. Annie Gray appears in a four-part HistoryExtra podcast series about Christmas parties through the ages, running through December