Throughout human history and across cultures, food and feasting have been key parts of our celebrations. Christmas dinner is no different. For many, it is the highlight of their Christmas Day: a sacred ritual that must be performed exactly right, matching the way it was served on Christmases past.
Some Christmas dinner traditions are ancient, dating back to pagan celebrations of the Winter solstice. Others were brought to Britain from Germany in the Victorian period, by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. However, a lot of our favourite Christmas dinner items appeared on our plate far more recently than you might think. Explore the history of some of your favourite dishes and Christmas culinary magic below!
For many of us, turkey will be the star of our Christmas dinner. However, this was not always the case. Eating turkey for Christmas dinner was popularised by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A variety of meats were eaten before turkey became the mainstay, including goose and pheasant among the middle and upper classes, and beef and pork among the working class. Turkeys were not only bigger than other birds or meat joints, ideal for feeding a large family gathering, but also looked great in the centre of a decorative Christmas table!
Like many Christmas food traditions, eating turkey was popularised by the Victorian middle classes. Many working class Britons continued to eat beef or pork for Christmas dinner until the end of the First World War (1914-18). In the 1920s, an influx of cheap, imported turkey from America made it affordable to more households and it became a staple of Christmas dinner throughout Britain. Having a turkey as the centre of the Christmas table became a status symbol and was widely referred to in magazines, newspapers and on the radio as a Christmas must-have. The demand for turkey was so great that many went to extreme lengths to secure one. By the 1960s, it was common knowledge that a man could secure a turkey from a friend of a friend at the working men’s club, as long as they didn’t ask too many questions about where it came from...
Many will be relieved to hear that brussel sprouts really aren’t as historic a tradition as you may think. However, their short-lived time on our Christmas menu has not stopped them developing quite the legacy.
Sprouts became a common Christmas dinner item after the Second World War (1939-45). They are a seasonal vegetable and hard to come by for the rest of the year. By the beginning of the 21st century, a quarter of all British sprout consumption was happening in December. The National Food Survey suggests 70% of people will eat them, but only 25% will finish their serving. 20% of people went so far as to say they “dreaded” having them on their plate.
This year, I had the family sprout debate via video chat. Full disclosure: I am a neutral party and really do not have strong feelings about sprouts. While my mum insisted that sprouts, done right, were delicious, my dad called it “the devil’s own Satanic vegetable” and pointed out that she says that every year. Funnily enough, my analysis of sprouts as an indicator of societal pressure didn’t really change anybody’s mind...
No other food so clearly demonstrates the power of history and tradition, with sprouts being forced on many unwilling diners in the name of Christmases past. However, this is starting to change. From 1975, the National Food Survey shows a steady decline in expenditure on traditional festive foods, such as sprouts and dried fruit. It seems that our buying habits are changing for the better, as we forgo waste and stop buying food that simply won’t be eaten.
Christmas pudding is another food “that was kept up more out of a sense of tradition than enjoyment”, according to author Martin Johnes. However, the modern day pudding is a far cry from the ‘plum porridge’ it evolved from. The original recipe didn’t actually contain any plums, as raisins were referred to as ‘plums’ in pre-Victorian England. The dish, dating back to 1573, did contain a mix of beef shin, spices, sugar and fruit, boiled down until gelatinous. Something close to contemporary christmas puddings didn’t emerge until the 1830s. The first recognisable modern Christmas pudding was slightly less gross, but did contain suet (fat from the loins and kidneys of animals) as a nod to the original mixture.
Christmas cake has not changed much from its original recipe, except for the addition of marzipan and white icing. Originally, the spices used in the cake represented the gifts of the three wise men, while fruit and almonds were rare, sweet treats for Medieval mouths. Christmas cake, however, was not originally eaten at Christmas at all, but rather on Twelfth Night (5th January). However, Oliver Cromwell and his puritans banned Twelfth Night feasting in the 1640s. In order to literally have their cake and eat it too, people began eating it on Christmas day, when some festivities were permitted.
Have you ever wondered why mince pies are called mince pies? Up until the 1800s they were actually made with beef mince. They were also much larger, intended to serve multiple people, and made in rectangular pie dishes to symbolise a crib. When sugar became more widely available, the mincemeat became sweetened, dried fruit rather than actual minced meat.
The spices that we use to flavour these Christmas treats were brought back to Britain by crusaders in the 11th century, who had been inspired by the way Middle-Eastern Muslims mixed the spices with fruit and meat to produce flavours unlike anything they had ever tasted before. With the development of trade routes, transportation and, of course, empire, spices became more affordable and widespread, causing their flavours to become recognisable to most of the British population.
The honour for oldest Christmas dish goes to the humble yule log. Today it is a delicious chocolate cake, but for iron age pagans it was a hefty chunk of decorative wood, burned on the night of the winter solstice to keep the darkness at bay. With the coming of Christianity to Britain and the shrinking of hearths, the yule log became a symbolic cake instead. Their popularity grew throughout Europe in the 19th century thanks to Parisian bakers, who produced highly decorative cakes to display in their shop windows.
In his book Christmas and the British: A Modern History, Martin Johnes notes that Christmas dinner has never been about what was eaten, but rather how much was eaten. Even for the poorest families, Christmas was characterised by better quality food and bigger portions than normal.
Gifts of food have always been popular at Christmas. Those who could afford to spend their money on sweets, chocolate, and other luxury goods did. Meanwhile, many interwar working class families relied on gifts of food for a bit of luxury at Christmastime, exchanging gifts of joints of meat and non-perishables. Even during the Second World War, when basic goods were scarce, people saved up their ration tickets to ensure that Christmas would be plentiful.
Today, we’re still guilty of buying more food than we need at Christmastime. This is the time of year when food waste peaks in the UK, with over ¼ of a million tonnes of edible food going to landfill at Christmas alone. That’s around 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies that are discarded while they are still edible. We can avoid waste by planning ahead when shopping, educating ourselves about how long different foods keep, and getting creative with our leftovers. We’re here to help and you will find plenty of inspiration on the ecoeats blog!
Despite being a widespread form of celebration, every Christmas dinner is unique. In some houses, there are beloved family recipes, with flavours infused with meaning, that you just can’t find anywhere else. Some people eat their Christmas dinner at lunchtime, others in the afternoon or evening. There are other grand debates: about whether turkey is tasteless, about whether Yorkshire puddings belong on the plate, and about what exactly bread sauce is.
For something so traditional, Christmas dinner looks and tastes different on every plate. Still, sharing the feast with others brings us together and shapes our Christmas experience. Food is powerful, and so is our sense of history and tradition. However you choose to celebrate this year, and however different it is from your usual celebration, we wish you a merry Christmas. Most of all, we wish you luck if this is your first time making your own Christmas dinner!