"And a Partridge in a Pear Tree":
The History of Christmas Food
Christmas Episode Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history of the food that has become so beloved of our Christmas season. If you want to know why we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, where mince pies or Christmas pudding originated, or the gargantuan meals of medieval royalty, then this is the episode for you. And, if you ever get into an argument about why turkeys bear that name, or if the first American colonists made Christmas illegal, listening to this episode will give you the upper hand. Merry Christmas, everyone.
EAT MY GLOBE
“AND A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE”:
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS FOOD
Do you know what I usually serve for Christmas dinner?
No Simon, what do you normally serve for Christmas dinner?
An octopus. That’s an odd choice. Why would you serve an octopus?
Well, that way, everyone gets a leg?
See. ‘Cause an octopus. . . it has many. . . Oh. Okay.
Okay. Let’s get started.
That’s a really bad one.
That is a really bad one. That’s my. . . That’s my. . .
Probably your worst.
That’s the worst Christmas gift you could give.
Oh. You’re not getting any Christmas gifts from me. Trust me. You doing this is your Christmas gift.
You being part of the Simon Majumdar podcast experience. That’s your gift. You should appreciate it more. Right.
Let’s, let’s get on.
And welcome to a brand new extra special bonus episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And on this episode, I’m going to respond to some of the most made requests we receive here at HQ EMG, as I like to call it – that is, to produce some episodes about meals for particular religious celebrations. Now, as we are rapidly approaching Christmas, I thought that that celebration and the history and food traditions around it might be the perfect way to start.
If you like this kind of episode then do please let me know and, we can turn our attention to some other times of the Christian year, as well as examining the histories of meals eaten at the times of celebration of other religions. I know, for one, that I would love to do more research on the meals of Passover and Hannukah from the Jewish faith, or the meals of Durga Puja from the Hindu Faith or those of meals served during Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha in the Islamic Faith.
But, for now. Let’s turn our attention to Christmas.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
The first thing I want to say before we begin is that, as we have a limited time on this podcast, I shall be concentrating primarily on Christmas traditions as they developed in Europe, and particularly, England. I have, very fortunately, experienced incredible Christmas meals in other parts of the world and in other non-Anglo-Saxon-based communities in the United States. And I know that food is also a massive part of their Christmas celebrations. However, with the limitations of time, I shall primarily be following the traditions through England and then to what became the United States. If this is an episode that people really enjoy, then perhaps we can look at more communities in the United States as well as other countries and their Christmas feasts in future episodes. Because, for example, I know that “Nochebuena” or “Good Night” as celebrated by many from Spain, Latin America and the Philippines on Christmas Eve with a scrumptious and massive feast is something to behold and not to be missed. But, hopefully, we can get into that another time.
As always, one of the first things I like to do before we start talking about the food is to be very clear exactly what it is about which we are talking. Now, that might seem, with Christmas being such a huge celebration, to be quite an easy task.
However, as we shall see from the etymology of the name, Christmas, and its often misunderstood abbreviation, and to the actual timing of the event itself, there is much to be discussed.
Now, let’s start by talking about the origins of the word, Christmas.
Before the word Christmas was in usage, the celebration of the birth of Christ was known as the “Feast of the Nativity” or “Yule,” which we’ll discuss in a moment. The term, Christmas, or in its early form, “Christemasse,” was first known to be used in the 12th century. The term is derived from an earlier term to describe a service in celebration of Christ, in Old English, “Cristes Maesse,” or
“the mass or church festival of Christ.”
Now, I’ve heard some rumblings about abbreviating the name, “Christmas,” to the word, “Xmas.” However, this actually has a longer history than those who think it is just a lazy recent adoption. Its use actually dates back to the year 1021. The letter, “X,” was how the Greeks wrote their letter, “Chi.” And “Chi” or “X” is the first letter in the word, “Christos,” or “Christ.” Some scholars theorized that Christian clerics from history abbreviated the word, “Christ,” with the Greek, “Chi” or “X,” because “X” looked like a cross.
And, now that we have talked about that word, “Christmas,” let’s talk about why and how it became important to Christians to have a celebration of Jesus’ birth, and how it came to have different dates that is observed by various sections of Christians.
I should mention here, that, as well as lots of other sources as cited in our annotated transcript, Judith Flander’s excellent, “Christmas: A Biography,” was particularly useful for this information.
For the majority of Christians, Christmas is observed on December the 25th– or for some, the evening of December the 24th. Although for many in the various Eastern Orthodox Churches including Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Egypt, Ethiopia, etcetera, Christmas is celebrated on January the 7th. This is because these churches follow the ancient Julian Calendar to fix their liturgical dates. This is a system that dates back to calendar reform imposed over the Roman world by Julius Caesar. Whereas the rest use the Gregorian Calendar, which was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Although, this wasn’t always the case in every country. England, for example, did not start following the Gregorian calendar until 1752.
But, even before these dates became fact, there was great debate amongst early Christians as to whether the birth of Christ should be the focus of a celebration at all. In fact, the notion of birthdays carried less importance in early Christianity with more emphasis being placed on the dates of baptism or on the dates of martyrdom. For most early Christians, the most important date on the calendar was that of Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The earliest celebration of Jesus’ birthday occurred in April or May during the reign of Emperor Diocletian – which was from the years 284 to 305. However, it was not until the year 336 that we see the first mention of the Nativity of Christ being celebrated on December the 25th and, even then, there are a few different theories as to why that date was the one selected.
Because the Bible makes no mention of the date of Jesus’ birth, there was great debate as to the formulating a chronology of Christian events. Sextus Julius Africanus, who was born in the year 160 and died in 250, is believed to have first created a chronology of Christian history based on Biblical references in his five-volume work called, “Chronographiai,” which spanned the period from the Creation through to the year 221. He calculated that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. Although there was quite a bit of debate, particularly because the Bible does mention that shepherds were out in the fields tending their flocks when Jesus was born, which would be a little bit unlikely in the middle of winter.
The other reason is that the 25th of December came to be chosen for the date for Christmas was to link it to the period where there were already pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. One of the most popular was the festival known as “Natalis Solis Invicti” or “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Another was the celebrations of the Roman god, Saturn, in a multi-day celebration known as, “Saturnalia,” which ran from December the 17th through to December the 25th. And, yet, another was celebrations in honor of the Persian god of light, Mithras, many of which were held in and around the time of the Winter Solstice.
So, this date – December 25th – was already a recognized period of celebration for the Romans and the Roman world. So, when Emperor Constantine I became a Christian in the year 312, religious leaders adopted these pagan celebrations to allow Constantine’s subjects in the Roman Empire a point of reference to help usher them to a smoother transition to Christianity. Soon, Christmas began to be celebrated by Christians in the vast Roman Empire.
The holiday too began to expand from just that single day to a wider event. By the year 567, the Council of Tours established that the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany – also sometimes known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas or Three Kings Day and celebrated on January the 6th to mark the time when the three kings followed the star to the manger – were to be treated as a single holiday.
In England, in the year 877, we see the law codes of Alfred the Great – you know, that guy, the guy who burned the cakes – decree that the twelve days between the two were a holiday on which no servant could be forced to work. The practice of celebrating Christmas in England began to spread, but it was not yet called “Christmas.” It was primarily known as “Yule” or “Midwinter.” “Yule” was a word with a Germanic origin which meant “Midwinter.” Interestingly, the Nordic word for Christmas is “Jul,” which meant “festivities.” This was another celebration that took part during the Winter Solstice. As I mentioned, the first use of the term “Christmas” in any recognizable form did not arrive until the 12th century.
What this origin story does show is, as Judith Flanders puts it,
“What can be said with certainty is that in the Christian tradition, from the early days through to the Middle Ages, many of the Christian ecclesiastical developments were a matter less of religious liturgy than of entertainment.”
That is to say, that in its early days, Christmas really was as much about festivities as it was about celebrating the birth of Christ.
By the medieval period, the Christmas celebrations had become 12 days of fairs, games, plays, the burning of Yule logs – a throwback to a pagan festival in honor of the Norse god, Thor – the hanging of mistletoe – a sign of fertility – and, of course, for our episode of Eat My Globe, the consumption of much food and alcohol. In fact, with twelve days free from work, the drinking of alcohol became such an issue that lords of the manor hired guards to keep an eye on their estates during that 12-day period.
This was a situation that was exacerbated by the fact that Christians would often abstain from rich food and drink during Advent, the weeks that led up to the Christmas celebrations. And also, by the fact that, in England, people indulged in the tradition of “Wassailing.” This was a tradition that dated back to the time of the Saxons and their way of greeting people by saying, “Was Haile” or “Your Health.” This took place during Twelfth Night, and involved quite a few warmed ales and spices. Part of that practice was for groups of celebrants to go from house to house with wassail bowls in hand toasting people in return for a drink.
As with today, I suspect, how wealthy one was would decide how well one ate during the Christmas celebrations. Royalty, for example, would be eating feasts that were extraordinary by any imagination. For a meal on Christmas Day 1213, King John’s feast included
“27 hogsheads of wine, 400 head of pork, 3,000 fowl, 15,000 herring, 10,000 eels, 100 pounds of almonds, two pounds of spices and 66 pounds of pepper.”
That’s quite a feast. And, while not everybody would be expecting that kind of enormous repast, people who were well to do or part of the landed aristocracy would also expect to have a very decent celebration. Although there were many feast days in the Medieval period, and each one had their own feasts, and the ones around Christmas – the time of an agricultural downtime – were ones that were particularly cherished.
Just as we do now, people exchanged gifts on the 25th of December, often of clothes and jewelry, and then it would be on to a very fine meal. This would probably take place in the Great Hall of the manor houses and would include a multi courses of dishes including soups, vegetable stews, and roast meats. The rich would have been used to eating meat on a regular basis, but at Christmas they would bring out the best ingredients cooked on a spit such as wild boar, suckling pig, legs of beef and mutton, ducks, geese, capons as well as fish and seafood in the form of oysters, salmon, and herring. Yes, sometimes, the menu had 17 main dishes. Although the likely centerpiece would have been a roasted peacock decorated with its feathers, or a peacock in a pie where its head and tail came out on either end of the pie. I can just imagine it being quite resplendent.
The savory courses would be followed by what was known as an “Entremet” or sometimes called a “soteltie,” a pre-dessert intermezzo decorated with honey and sugar, or it could even be an elaborate live performance. And finally, the desserts would range from fruits, to custards to pastries.
All of this, of course, would have been served with a plentiful supply of wine, which was drunk at a young age because of spoilage, and often watered down a little or sweetened with honey. Beer was a drink for the lower classes, so it probably would not have been served to the aristocrats at their Christmas meal.
And what about those from the peasant classes? How did they eat at Christmas?
Well, their day would also began with the exchanging of gifts, although no jewels or fine clothing here. Rather modest toys such as spinning tops, marbles or simple figures. Then, they too would have seated themselves for a meal that would have included a rare treat of meat, cheese, eggs, cakes and ale.
Many of these Christmas traditions carried on into the 1500s and 1600s. Houses were decorated with bay, holm, ivy and other leaves. And, as before, the celebrations lasted through the 12 days of Christmas.
It was during this period, around 1519, that we see the arrival from Mexico of the now Christmas staple, the turkey, into Europe. They got their name because, at the time, the English named many things imported from the New World in Turkey’s honor. For example, they named maize as “Turkish wheat,” pumpkins as “Turkish cucumbers,” and this new-to-them bird as a “Turkey Cock.” They were, it is believed, first introduced to England from the Americas by a Yorkshire Member of Parliament called, William Strickland, who obviously did quite well out of trading in them as by 1550, when he was granted the right to create a coat of arms, he used a turkey as part of his crest.
However, in Elizabethan times, the main event would have been the goose. As years went on, the turkey would bump the goose off and take center stage.
Another staple of the English Christmas dining tradition can also be traced back to this period, and that is the sweet treat that we now know in England as a “Mince Pie.”
Mmmm. Love me a mince pie.
For those of you who have never eaten a minced pie, the contemporary version consists of a short crust pastry casing with a filling of “mincemeat,” which is a mixture of raisins, currants, sugar, nutmeg, apple mixed with lemon juice and a good glug of brandy.
Originally, these pies would have been called, “Shred Pies,” or “Christmas Pies,” and, as well as the exotic fruits, would have contained almost six pounds of meat – first, with boiled pork, then, with finely minced mutton. Hence, the term minced meat. They were also shaped like an oval or “coffin” to represent the manger. People ate them between Christmas and Twelfth Night in the hopes of getting good luck. Modern equivalents might also replicate some of that savory element by adding suet fat into their pastry recipe. Suet is the fat that surrounds the kidneys of animals such as lamb or beef. And it brings a really rich flavor to any dish.
One of my favorite historical recipes for mince pies comes from Gervase Markham’s book, “The English Huswife,” which was published in the early 1600s.
“Take a Leg of Mutton, and cut the best of the best flesh from the bone, and parboyle it well: then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet, and shred it very small: then spread it abroad, and season it with pepper and salt, cloves and mace: then put in good store of currants, great rayssons, and prunes cleane washt and pickt, a few dates slic’t, and some orange peel slic’t: then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them: and when they are served up open the liddes, and strow store of suger on the top of the meate, and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beefe or Veale; onely the Beefe would not be parboyld, and the Veale will aske a double quantitie of suet.”
The term, “coffin,” here refers to the shapes of the pies, which, as I mentioned above, represents the mangers. These pies, with their mixture of sweet and meat, originally began as a savory pie, but by the 18th Century, the fruit had taken over from all the meat and they became the sweet pies we adore so much today.
Mmmm. I do love, love, love minced pies.
I might be biased but I think the first mince pie of the season in England is one of the great Christmas tasting moments, and it if you have not yet tried one, I really recommend you seek one out.
The other aspect of this Elizabethan period was that the expeditions to the New World would have begun to see the arrival of new and exotic ingredients into England and on to the tables of the wealthy and aristocratic. Ingredients such as potatoes would have begun to make an appearance.
If the Elizabethan Christmas celebrations allowed people to indulge on more expensive ingredients, it was not terribly long after Elizabeth’s death that Christmas faced a major challenge. Elizabeth died in 1603 and ended a golden era. James I of England – also James the VI of Scotland – succeeded Elizabeth and reigned for 22 years. Charles I became King in 1625. There followed one of the most tumultuous periods in English history.
In 1642, the period of the English Civil Wars began. This was between the royalist forces of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians over matters of the governance of the country and religious observation. Now, one could create a whole series of podcasts about the English Civil Wars, but for our purposes, suffice to say, that the wars in the three kingdoms ended in September of 1651 with the Parliamentarians in control, and their leader, Oliver Cromwell, became the “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” from 1654 until his death in 1658.
Now, one of the great myths that has been promulgated is that Oliver Cromwell made Christmas illegal. The reality is, of course, that he didn’t. But, as Professor Peter Gaunt at the University of Chester argues, it would be fair to say that, with Cromwell’s religious beliefs, he probably would have been sympathetic to the laws passed by the English parliament that did put pressure on Christmas and other saints days during the 1640s.
The parliamentarians disapproved the Christmas celebrations for a number of reasons. One, because of the extravagance, immorality and sin that they believed had become so associated with the 12 days of Christmas. And, secondly, because the very nature of a Mass for Christ or Christ’s Mass was seen as a residue of Roman Catholicism that had been prominent in England. In effect, it was too popish. They pressed for the abolishment of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, as well as other festivals for Saints, and even took the Church of England apart at one point. It was not restored until 1660.
In 1645, Parliament selected a group of religious leaders who then created a Directory of Public Worship, which decreed that Sunday was to be the only holy day.
“festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.”
And in 1647, Parliament passed another ordinance that confirmed the abolition of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun celebrations.
The reality is, however, that although Christmas was officially banned, it was too much a part of people’s lives for it to disappear completely, and it was probably celebrated anyway, if with slightly less extravagance than before. And, with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, such ordinances were quickly dispensed with.
In fact, in the same year, we also see the first cookbook in English with the first written menu for Christmas Day. They appear in Robert May’s book, “The Accomplisht Cook,” under the title
“A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day and how to set the Meat in order.”
May suggested 39 dishes split over two courses, which included, “Stewed Broth of mutton marrow-bones,” “A breast of veal in stoffado,” “A kid with a pudding in his belly,” “A turkey roast and stuck with cloves,” “Two couple of rabits, two larded,” “A swan pie,” “A Gammon of Westfalia Bacon,” and “Sturgeon.”
Plus, to finish off, jellies. Christmas was very definitely back.
By the Georgian period, that is the period from 1714 to 1830, so named because of all the number of kings called George, Christmas was definitely reestablished as a major celebration. And, we see it being mentioned in literature of the period, including perhaps the most famous of all, Jane Austen, whose character in the book, “Emma,” named Mr. Elton, observes,
“This is quite the season, indeed, for friendly meetings. At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather. I was snowed up at a friend’s house once for a week. Nothing could be pleasanter.”
However, while the Christmas celebrations might be quite fun for the well to do, where they ate plenty of meat, pudding and pies, for the lower classes, things were not the same as how their class celebrated in the Medieval and the Elizabethan period. This is mainly because of the fact that the Georgian period, was also the era that covered the Industrial Revolution. That is a period, particularly rapid in England, that saw rural agricultural communities of Europe and America change to industrialized cities. This meant that many of the lower classes moved to the cities to find jobs and once they were gainfully employed, they couldn’t really spend 12-days off for Christmas, so the traditional 12 days of Christmas celebrations became shortened to one day.
An urban legend from this period is that George I, who reigned from 1714 to 1727, apparently demanded that a plum pudding be served at his first Christmas meal as the English king in 1714. Plum pudding or Christmas pudding had its origins in the Middle Ages and in dishes that were similar, in fact, to sausages. The word, “pudding,” comes from the French word, “boudin,” which is derived from the Latin word for sausage, “botellus.” In these sausages, meat, fat, fruits and spices were packed into the casings made of animal intestines – as one might do with a sausage today – to help protect them from spoilage. The term, “plum,” in Plum Pudding refers to all varieties of dried, preserved and candied fruits, which could have included currants, raisins and prunes. It was not until the end of the 16th century, that this sausage-like dish became sweeter than savory due to the abundance of fruit at that time. The animal casing too disappeared to be replaced by a floured cloth in which the pudding would be steamed.
As I mentioned, the fact that George I allegedly requested a plum pudding for his first Christmas meal may well have been apocryphal, but the tale was enough for him to be given the nickname, “The Pudding King.”
I think I rather want that as, uh, my own nickname. I’m going to be the Pudding King.
I miss Christmas Puddings so much. I don’t get the chance to have them now as I usually spend Christmas outside of Britain. Nothing says Christmas like a sweet, steamed pudding doused in brandy and set on fire. Yum.
So many of the practices that we now think of as being Christmas traditions stem from the Victorian period. And, many of these changes came not from Queen Victoria herself, but from her Royal Consort, Prince Albert, who introduced many of his favorite traditions from his family’s country home in Coburg and Gotha in what is now Germany.
He is often credited with making it vogue to have a Christmas tree. However, Victoria’s Hanoverian ancestors – that is, originating in Germany – had been decorating trees every Christmas for some time. Albert was also instrumental in popularizing gingerbread as a Christmas tradition, where Queen Victoria wrote in her journal. . .
Should I do a Victoria?
[In a mock Victoria voice] “Albert arranged a surprise for the Children.”
Should I do that? That’s my Queen Victoria. Okay, I’ll do it properly.
[In a mock Victoria voice] “Albert arrange. . .”
“Albert arranged a surprise for the Children. In Germany the old saying that St. Nicholas appears with a rod for naughty children, & gingerbread for good ones, is constantly represented, & Arthur hearing of this begged for one. Accordingly Albert got up a St. Nicholas, most formidable he looking, in black, covered with snow, a long white beard, & red nose, — of a gigantic stature! He came in asking the Children, who were somewhat awed & alarmed, — ‘are you a good child, & giving them gingerbread & apples.’”
Goose was still the main bird for the festive table during the early Victorian period. It was still an expensive tradition, and in Victorian times people would join a club known as the “Goose Club.” These were usually located in pubs and for the payment of a few pennies or a shilling a week for a few months before Christmas, the member would get a goose to take home with them to eat at Christmas. As the majority of homes of the poorer members of society did not have their own ovens, they would have the goose cooked in the ovens of the local baker who would take a small payment for keeping his fires going.
For the amount they paid, the subscribers to the club would often be given a bottle of gin as well, which often made these “Goose Clubs” a target of the temperance movement. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, describes the inner workings of “Goose Clubs” in a dialogue for the story entitled, “The Blue Carbuncle.”
Of course, perhaps the most famous book ever written about the Christmas season was also published in the 19thcentury and that is, “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. It is a book that has been adapted into numerous films – including a Muppet movie – a video game, a mime, ballets, and operas over the years, and its story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s salvation from the darkness is one that is still as powerful today as it was when Dicken’s first published the book in 1843. Now, food plays a major part in this book from Scrooge theorizing that the ghost of Jacob Marley
“may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
To the Ghost of Christmas Present showing up in the middle of a throne of
“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.”
To the heartwarming scene at the house of the lowly Cratchits which involved the goose.
“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet, everyone had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witness — to take the pudding up and bring it in.”
And the Cratchit dinner also involves the glorious pudding.
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house, and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
A fine meal indeed.
Now, so much of the American Christmas tradition stems from this Victorian period as well. However, it is worth remembering that the earliest colonists who arrived in what was to become the United States in 1620 were often even stricter in their stance against Christmas than many of those they had left behind in England. In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony criminalized the celebration of Christmas and fined anyone in violation. It says,
“anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such day as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.”
Their reasons for doing so were first they did not believe the celebration to be biblically ordained, and they were convinced that Christmas was merely a pagan festival that the Catholics took over that had more to do with Winter Solstice than it did with Christ. Even when England repealed their own anti-Christmas law when the monarchy was restored in 1660, the ordinance still remained valid law in Massachusetts for many years. Although, as in England, there does seem to be evidence that people in Massachusetts still celebrated Christmas discreetly and privately. Also, it does not appear that anyone was charged for celebrating Christmas while the law was in effect. The Massachusetts legislature finally repealed the law in 1681.
Interestingly, the newly minted Americans did not really celebrate Christmas or follow many other ideas and traditions from England after the American Revolution.
That’s not to say that the founding fathers did not celebrate Christmas at all. In 1783, George Washington indulged in a Christmas feast at his home in Mount Vernon that included a “Christmas Pie,” that was stuffed with
“a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and pigeon.”
The dish was followed by his wife, Martha’s, recipe for
– that was made with
“40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of powdered sugar, 5 pounds of fruit, and a half pint of wine and brandy.”
It is believed that during Christmas, Washington gave everyone, including the slaves that he owned, four days’ time off.
By the 19th century, different states declared Christmas to be a holiday on different dates. And, in 1870, the US Congress passed a law that was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant that allowed federal employees in DC to legally take an unpaid holiday on Christmas day.
Before it had become a federal holiday, Christmas was already becoming popular as a holiday around the country, primarily because of the influence of ideas from Victorian England – such as sending Christmas cards or decorating a tree. Something that many of the new German immigrants were familiar with. Many of these Victorian Christmas traditions were promulgated to the wider American public by being featured in the popular magazine called the “Godey’s Lady Book” edited by Sarah Josepha Hale, who many people would know as the person who pushed the idea of Thanksgiving becoming a major holiday in the United States.
Along with the traditions from England came the arrival of Santa Claus or “Father Christmas” from Holland. Santa Claus is a Christmas character based on, Saint Nicholas, from the 4th century. He was a monk that, legends tell us, was noted for his kindness, religious faith, and giving nature. There is a story about him where he provided a wedding dowry for three poor young women to prevent their father from selling them into slavery or prostitution. Apparently, while they were asleep, Saint Nicholas dropped gold for their dowry into the girls’ stockings that they had left out to dry, and hence many people still leave stockings out on Christmas Eve to receive gifts.
Over a period of time, Saint Nicholas became known as the protector of children and his life was celebrated on the day of his death – December the 6th.
Saint Nicholas or “Sinter Klaas,” as he is known in Holland, first became known in the United States at the end of the 18th century when local newspapers reported that Dutch people were gathering to honor the anniversary of his death.
The anglicized name, “Santa Claus,” was derived from his original Dutch name. And, as the rejuvenation of the Christmas traditions developed in the 19thcentury, so did Santa Claus become part of these traditions. Interesting, isn’t it?
In 1822, a poem entitled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” or more well-known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by an Episcopalian minister named Clement Clarke Moore brought with it the image of Santa Claus as
“He had a broad face, and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump—a right jolly old elf”
. . .and who flew from house to house dropping down the chimney to deliver gifts.
And, in 1881, it was a cartoonist, Thomas Nast, in a drawing for Harper’s Weekly, who created the image that we have of Santa Claus as a large man with a white beard carrying a bag of toys. It was the same cartoon that showed Santa, for the first time, in that red suit, adorned with white fur that we’re so familiar with today. Nast also introduced us to Santa’s elves and to Mrs. Claus.
To bring this back to food, for a moment, one of the great food myths is that the notion of Santa Claus that we have today was created entirely by an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. As we can see from what I just said about the poem of Clement Clarke Moore and the cartoons of Thomas Nast, this isn’t quite accurate as the notion of a portly, bearded Santa delivering gifts while dressed in a red, fur trimmed suit was already well known before the Coca Cola advertisement campaign in 1931.
However, it would definitely be fair to argue that this campaign with its very familiar wholesome images of Santa Claus did have a huge impact on how the character is depicted today. They were designed by an artist named Haddon Sundblom. Coca Cola and the D’Arcy Advertising Agency wanted Santa to be wholesome. So, Sundblom drew from Clement Clark Moore’s poem as inspiration and actually used his friend, Lou Prentiss, as the character model. Over the decades that followed, the Santa Claus as promoted by Coca Cola became the one that we all recognize.
Oh, and one last tradition before we go. The tradition of leaving a little snack for Santa, along with some carrots for his reindeer, is one that really began in the 1930s during the period of the Great Depression. It was a way to educate children to be thankful when they receive gifts particularly at a time when so many were struggling. However, as with so many Christmas traditions, its origins date back much, much further to the ancient Norse myths. Odin, King of the Norse Gods, was believed to ride an eight-legged horse called Sleipner. During the Winter Solstice, children would put out food for Sleipner, to entice Odin to stop by, and in the process, maybe he would give them gifts. It is a practice that is still carried out in some countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where kids believe that Santa Claus’ sleigh is pulled by horses, not reindeer.
And, I think, that brings us to the point where I want to go off and have a cup of tea and a large mince pie, put up my Christmas stocking and hope that Santa Claus or “Sinter Klass” or Saint Nicholas leaves me something rather lovely and perhaps gin related as a splendid Christmas gift. Just a suggestion, anybody.
Knowing my luck, however, I think it’s more likely to be a pair of socks.
Ho Hum, rather than Ho Ho Ho.
See you next time folks and have a fantastic Christmas.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[Pah pah pah pah pah sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
[Singing] Doesn’t it feel a lot like Christmas.
Published Date: December 20, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.