At the time of writing, it’s 3 days till Christmas. So baste the turkey warm the plates, stir the pud, bury the coin in mincemeat then cover it in brandy. Let’s check history’s oven and see how our Christmas dinner table got so crowded.
ROOT VEG ‘N’ SPROUTS:
By Tudor times, root vegetables were eaten nearly as much as meat and newcomers like sprouts were joining the plate. These perennial “favourites” (personally I still have to gulp my one-sprout-a-year down with a glass of red) offered highly nutritious vitamins through the season, unusually growing in even the roughest of winters.
The Southern Mexican turkey was a domesticated bird, making it very easy to transport, so by 1525 these birds started appearing in European ports. Originally it was confused with the African guinea fowl, arriving via the Ottoman empire, land of the Turks. So the turkey suered a case of mistaken identity; though it had never even been to Turkey, the name “turkey” stuck.
The whole naming of this bird is one giant fiasco, to be honest. The country it was thought to be from wasn’t even called Turkey until after World War I, so the bird was (wrongly) named first. Then there’s the fact that the bird they thought it was wasn’t even from Turkey (which wasn’t called Turkey) but East Africa – the birds just changed hands a few times between Turks en route. Finally, the world over, they all seem to call it different names based on other places that it’s not even from. The Turks themselves called it “an Indian bird”, as did the French who call it an “Indian rooster” (a “coq d’Inde”, now abridged to “dinde”). In Malaysia it’s a “Dutch chicken”, while the Portuguese call it a “Peru bird”. The humble turkey should really be called “Mexican guinea fowl lookalike”.
Michaelmas, on 29 September, was the day that each goose should look over its shoulders. They’d been popular with the Celts in their Samhain festival and also in our very old friend Yule.
Long before the Dutch/American/Mexican/Peruvian/Indian turkey could get its claws onto our Christmas menu, the goose beat it to it. This was all thanks to another sea explorer, not bringing anything back from the New World but defending the Old World. Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard led the defence against the Spanish Armada, and on 29 September 1588 word reached Queen Elizabeth of their success. She was tucking into her traditional Michaelmas goose at the time, and was so overjoyed at the victory that she decreed that goose become celebration food from then on. That Christmas, roasted goose was the bird of choice – so when Michaelmas later declined, the goose clung to Christmas instead.
JOINT OF HAM:
It’s all that’s left of one of Britain’s oldest continuing Christmas customs: the Boar’s Head. There’s even a carol or two to go with it, and the tradition is alive and well at certain posh colleges – notably Oxford claims an origin story, of a student meeting a wild boar on the way to Midnight Mass, so shoved a philosophy book down its throat to save from a mauling. It was served at royal feasts with a lemon or apple in its mouth and garnished with rosemary and bay leaves.
The Christmas pudding owes a lot to sea imports of the Crusades. Spices arrived and joined wheat, almonds, eggs, even fish and meat, to make a classic English porridge called ‘frumenty’, stirred by the whole family for special occasions. It became the popular plum porridge, then eighteenth century plum pudding – which debuted in a cookbook alongside the first recipe for orange marmalade. George I loved it so much, they called him ‘The Plum Pudding King’.
It was made by wrapping the mixture in a cloth and swinging it around, forming a ball. Remove the cloth, halve the ball, lose the fish and meat (I would) and you have Christmas pudding. Light it on fire to remind us of Yule. Count the ingredients and stir up as a family on Stir-Up Sunday, to remind us of the Christian Christmas. The Christmas pudding is a bit of everything: just like Christmas.
Mince pies originally contained real mince, while its shape was possibly the most Christian thing about Christmas food: it resembled a crib, or perhaps a coffin. The theologically-minded saw both, but Cromwell’s Puritan parliament saw potential idol-worship. So when Christmas was banned, so was this pastry crib. But change the shape, flout the law. The round, minceless mince pie is all we have.
No room for this? It’s all that’s left of the popular ‘Twelfth Cake’ that closed the season on January 6th. A coin would be hidden inside to pick the fool-in-charge for the night (or a wedding ring, to pick a bride) – and with no more Twelfth Cake, this custom has remained popular in many a Christmas pud.
Hark! The Biography of Christmas (published by Lion Hudson) is out now priced £7.99, to be found in all good bookshops, on all good websites, and in all good Christmas stockings.