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Peter Claesz, Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627

Christmas dinners have been worthy of penning for history since the days of noble tables set for hundreds of persons and the dishes that consistently were placed upon those tables are worthy of note today.  While the dishes themselves changed over time the one thing that has remained constant is the appreciation of tradition.

Henry II’s [1133-1189] table was graced with dishes of cranes while Henry III [1207-1272] purchased 20 salmon, “to be put into pies”.  “The sammon, king of fish, fills with good cheer the Christmas dish”. 

In 1398, Richard II [1367-1400] supposedly had 2,000 oxen roasted for one Christmas feast.  For another, the following recipe was used to make a great pie to grace the Christmas table.

Take a pheasant, a hare, a capon, two partridges, two pigeons, two rabbits, bone them and put them into paste the shape of a bird, with the livers and hearts, two mutton kidneys, forcemeats, sage balls, seasoning, spice, catchup [could have been made with walnuts, mushrooms, peppers, etc. – tomatoes weren’t yet used], pickled mushrooms, filled up with gravy made from the various bones.

Edward III’s [1312-1377] table was set with blanc-manges, tarts, pies, and rich soups of brawn [boar’s flesh] and capon [an emasculated rooster].

The English nobility often employed French cooks whose specialties included “jellies [gelatin] of all colors [and flavors] in all figures – flowers, trees, beasts, fish, fowl, and fruit”.

Wine was spiced to taste, and cinnamon, grains of Paradise, and ginger also scented the various desserts.

By this time boar’s head emerged as a standard Christmas dish.  The boar’s head was pickled, boiled, or roasted and laid in a great charger covered with a garland of bay and served with a lemon in its mouth and with mustard. 

 

Boar's head, blanc-mange, &c.

It was not unusual to roast the heads of various animals or make them into soup and some countries continue this tradition today. 

 “Brawn is probably as old a Christmas tradition as boar’s head”. 

Peacock was the next Christmas dish – the skin was carefully scraped off with the plumage adhering.  The bird was roasted and when done it was sewed up again in its feathers, its beak gilt, and sent to table.  Sometimes the whole body was covered in gold leaf and a piece of cotton soaked in spirits and lighted before it was carved.

English writers noted that the turkey graced English Christmas tables from the time it was introduced into England from the Americas about 1524.  Throughout history swans, bustards [European game bird akin to the crane or plover], fat capons, goose, and roast beef have all delighted those partaking of the Christmas dinners. 

 

Roast Goose

Plum pudding evolved from rich plum porridges often served at breakfast.  As it became increasingly thicker with the passing of time it eventually was of a dense enough texture to stand alone as a dessert.  It has been included in cookery books since the 1600’s. For Christmas it was traditionally adorned with a sprig of holly and sometimes served with alcohol poured over it and set ablaze. 

Plum Pudding

Following the plum pudding, the next to join the exalted Christmas fare were minced or shred pies and frumenty.  Mince pies were sometimes called Christmas pie. 

“Every family against Christmas, makes a famous pie, which they call ‘Christmas pie’.  It is a great nostrum; the composition of this pasty is a most learned mixture of neats’ [beef] tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon, and orange-peel with various kinds of spicery.  – The Christmas Book:  Christmas in the Olden Time, It’s Customs and Their Origin.  1859.  London.

Frumenty was an important part of the Christmas dinner.  It was made of wheat boiled in broth with almonds, milk, yolks of eggs, and sweetened with sugar. – Cassel’s Household Guide.  1881.  London.

A poem written in Queen Elizabeth I’s time [1533-1603] informs us that following the boar’s head, which was sometimes soused and served on a silver platter, came great Christmas pies containing turkey, geese, various sorts of game and small birds with pork and mutton.  Such pies are still served “in the North [of England]”, though of much less size than olden times. 

…there is no notice of turkey and chine [pork containing the backbone]; none of the more famous roast beef which is now the chief dish at Christmas dinners.  In fact, they did not achieve their proud position until the fifteenth century, at which time, the poets and others begin to speak of them as commonly sent to the Christmas table.  Modern writers [Victorian era], however, frequently fall into the error of representing them as pertaining to the earliest feasts.  [A practice that continues, unfortunately.]

The Puritans [16th & 17th centuries] so spurned any semblance of finery that they banned Christmas customs and celebrations in New England.  The following generations, however, realized that there was no sin in wanting to provide the best one could for their family and loved ones on such a special and holy day as Christmas, and the Christmas dinner as we know it began to evolve as Puritanism faded away. 

In 1845, Thomas Hervey remembered the Christmas described in Samuel Pepys’ diary in 1668, and was thankful the days of Puritanism had long given way to openly celebrating the holiday in ways not so different from today.

Pepys wrote, “1668, Christmas-day.  To dinner alone with my wife; who, poor wretch! Sat undressed, all day till ten at night, altering and lacing of a noble petticoat; while I, by her, making the boy read to me the life of Julius Caesar and Des Cartes’ book of Music.” 

Everyone has their Christmas traditions, the little remembrances that tug at the heart strings and take us back to happy times with family and loved ones.  Wives have put a great deal of thought and preparation into making the Christmas dinner as beautiful and tasty as possible since the last days of Puritanism. 

Christmas dinner of old, as penned in the mid-Victorian era, still included some dishes foreign to today’s reader:  “Men may talk of country Christmasses, their thirty pound buttered eggs, their pies of carp’s tongue, their pheasants drenched with ambergris [a fat obtained from the whale], the carcases of three fat wethers [a castrated ram – like the rooster, emasculating the animal rendered the flesh more tender for the table] bruised for gravy, to make sauce for a single peacock; yet their feasts were fasts, compared with the city’s.”

Hervey went on to describe with joy the festivities of the “modern” [1845] holiday.

It is like that of all the other Christmas nights.  The blazing fire, the song, the dance, the riddle, the jest, and many another merry sport, are of its spirits.  Mischief will be committed under the mistletoe bough,–and all the good wishes of the season sent round under the sanction of the wassail-bowl.

The focal point of the Christmas dinner which Hervey so joyously wrote of was the turkey, born to grace Christmas tables decorated with candles and greenery gleefully gathered from the woods, the act of which was known as “bringing home Christmas”.

The custom of Victorians contributing to the Christmas dinner of those less fortunate was known as “Going a Gooding” and the basket used to transport the food was the Christmas basket.

We have an account of one such basket given to a widow with two small children which indicates the dishes which may have been considered the most traditional for Victorian Christmas dinners.  It contained a chicken, a plum pudding, four pies, bread, and some cakes.  – Thayer, William Makepeace.  Merry Christmas.  A Christmas Present for Children and Youth.  1854.  Boston.

Whatever your traditional Christmas fare, may it be a delight of fragrance and flavors, and a blessing to all who partake of it.  Blissful meals and Merry Christmas to all.

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