Today’s Christmas traditions may seem as old and authentic as they come, but they are, actually a patchwork of numerous centuries and countries customs all woven together with a good dose of Christmas spirit. Some rituals have survived for millennia, whilst others, such as serving a peacock for Christmas dating from 1430, have fallen from fashion, and more modern ones like serving a roast turkey have come into vogue.
Some traditions and customs are so well established that we follow them without any hesitation and indeed it perhaps feels that there is nothing quite as festive as erecting a Christmas tree or hanging a wreath on your door. Today a Christmas wreath is a common decorative item during the holy season of Christmas, but the wreath on your front door is a remnant of the ancient pagan practice of bringing evergreen foliage into the home, symbolising everlasting life and renewal at the darkest time of the year. Pagan rituals of mid-winter often featured a wreath of evergreen with four candles. The candles were placed in each of the four directions, representing the elements of earth, wind, water and fire, with the shape of the wreath being symbolic of the continuance of the circle of life, the early Christians re-appropriated the existing Pagan mid-winter festival, deciding that it should instead celebrate Jesus’ birthday and we find the advent wreath is created with four candles, each a different colour. One candle is lit each Friday of Advent with a prayer. In this, the wreath represents the coming of the Christmas celebration
Also attributing to the wreath lore is the Roman use of wreaths as symbols of victory and it is believed that victors of battles would hang wreaths upon their doors to advertise their victorious status, whilst the decorative value of wreaths is believed to have been derived by ancient tradition, with them being used in a way that house numbers are used today: to identify different families and houses.
Today’s Christmas dinner is often a feast of roast turkey, vegetables, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pigs in blankets served with lashings of gravy all washed down with an alcoholic tipple of choice and followed by a helping of Christmas pudding and a few mince pies. It is true to say that when someone mentions Christmas dinner it is hard not to think of turkey and all the trimmings, although this is a relatively new tradition in the long history of Christmas celebrations.
A medieval Christmas lasted for 12 days, and New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night were just as important as December 25th. However, Christmas Day was the first day of feasting and as Christmas Eve was a day of fast it was a real feast of celebration. A medieval Christmas feast would have been a splendid affair to behold, but perhaps a little daunting for the digestive system. A Christmas feast for Henry V included dates, carp, eels roasted with lamprey, and a leach milk jelly. This 15th-century feast concluded with the most visually alluring sugar sculptures known as sotiltees or subtleties.
So why with a Christmas culinary history that includes peacocks and roasted eels, do we eat turkey for Christmas? Turkeys were introduced in Britain more than 500 years ago by Yorkshire’s William Strickland, who acquired six birds from American Indian traders on his travels. Prior to the big bird, people’s meat of choice for Christmas included goose, boars’ head, roast swan, peacock or even mutton.
Whilst, Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy turkey in the 16th century, it was Edward VII that made eating turkey fashionable at Christmas. Today, approximately 10million turkeys are eaten in the UK every year, but Turkey has only gone mainstream over the last 60 years. Indeed, up until the 1950s it was widely considered a luxury and in the 1930s the average person had to work for a week to be able to buy a turkey, whereas, now a turkey costs an average family 1.7 hours of labour. From the 1950’s onwards widespread refrigeration and the increased availability of the turkey all aided its popularity.
As for the festive trimmings, many of them are relative newcomers in festive history. As you tuck into a few perfect roast potatoes, you may be interested to know that you wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Pride and Prejudice as these are a Regency speciality. Whilst your festive Brussels’ Sprout was imported from Brussels around four hundred years ago it was grown and first eaten for practicality as they are one of the toughest vegetables, able to withstand the freezing cold weather conditions, so whether you love or hate them, they are hardy little devils.
Pigs in Blankets are an American import and the earliest written record of pigs in blankets dates back to 1957 and as you ladle the cranberry sauce over your turkey this is another dish to thank the Americans for, as legend has it that cranberries were served with turkey at the very first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.
As we groan under the strain of a modern day Christmas dinner, whilst wearing a paper hat pulled from a cracker we really should have some slaves on hand to help with the clearing up. For the historic12-day holiday sometimes saw the normal social hierarchy reversed, not unlike the Roman feast of Saturnalia, where the masters waited on the slaves. The “Lord of Misrule”, a lowly servant, might be crowned master of ceremonies and japes, and echoes of the tradition survives today in our wearing of the paper crowns, with which the Lord of Misrule was identified
Like mince pies, Christmas pudding didn’t start off as sweet treat. In the 1300s fruits, spices and wine were added to help preserve the beef and mutton that made up the festive dish. The pudding originated as a 14th Century mixture of beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and mixed spices. By the 17th century, the meat was gone and it was solidified with eggs and breadcrumbs. It wasn’t until Victorian times that the pudding became bomb shaped and the practice of setting fire to the pudding came in, a tradition that would be greeted with a round of applause when it was brought to the table. At modern Christmas dinner tables nothing seems as nostalgic and festive as a flaming plum pudding adorned with holly.
Whilst, the majority of families (76%) around the UK will serve up a succulent roast turkey as the centre piece of their festive meal, Christmas traditions are once again changing. and the modern Christmas feast is likely to see pigs in blankets swapped for chipolatas wrapped in sage and pancetta,; boiled sprouts swapped for steamed sprouts with chestnuts and prosciutto and apricot and walnut stuffing baubles replacing sage and sausage meat stuffing.. As for the festive roast some trend setters are opting for curries or pizza instead of turkey and tinsel. Indeed one major supermarket launched a Christmas dinner pizza last year, boasting it only took ten minutes to cook. I can only hope that in fifty years time I am not going to be writing about how pizza became a staple Christmas tradition.