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The roasts of Christmas past: 5 festive dinners from British history

The British Christmas dinner is the stuff of legends, from succulent roast turkey to the often maligned Brussels sprout. But the modern meal was a long time in the making. Annie Gray investigates the foods our ancestors ate in Christmases past, from the delicious to the downright disgusting

Still Life of Game Birds, oil on canvas. Birds such as goose, swan and peacock were often on the late medieval festive menu
Published: December 6, 2021 at 7:05 am
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The late medieval / Tudor Christmas dinner: gluttons, devils and wine-bibbers

Winter is grim, and for the medieval church Advent was a period of religious fast. During this time people couldn’t eat dairy, eggs or animal products, although fish was permissible. So the chance to light big fires, drink and eat was a release of tension and an officially sanctioned period in which to blow off steam. For those who could afford it, Christmas extended over the full Twelve Days, each with feasting and play.

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Up to the 16th century there were no foods entirely specific to Christmas, but there were dishes connected to celebration and showing off. By the end of the 16th century, some of these were more associated with Christmas than others. Big birds were “in” because farmed fowl was in season – thus goose, capon, swan (raised from that year’s cygnets) and peacock were all consumed. When turkey was introduced from the Americas in around the 1530s it was enthusiastically adopted, served roasted with head and legs intact, or with elements of the plumage used as decoration for raised pies.

For those who could not afford such lavishness, hospitality was taken seriously. Landlords and employers gave gifts of meat, fuel and ale to the poor.

Mentions of specific Christmas pies appear during the Tudor period, too. These were sometimes the meat-heavy equivalents of today’s multi-bird roasts, but it was also a name for mince pies, made with up to 50 per cent meat, bulked out with sugar, spice and all things very nice – and very rich. Plum pottage was another seasonal food (like mince pies, eaten throughout winter), consisting of a hefty beef stock, breadcrumbs, spice and dried fruit.

And then there was the booze. Excess drinking was very much a part of the season. So much so that by the 17th century the Puritan writer William Prynne said that, based on Christmas revelry, Jesus might be thought of as “a glutton, an epicure, a wine-bibber, a devil”.


On the podcast – Christmas feasts with Annie Gray

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In our festive four-part series, Annie Gray takes Ellie Cawthorne on a culinary journey through the history of Christmas food. Listen to the full series now:


The Georgian Christmas dinner: the end of excess?

“Old Christmas is coming,” cried Charles Lamb in 1826. “He cometh not with his wonted gait, he is shrunk 9 inches in the girth, but is yet a Lusty fellow.”

By the late 18th century Christmas was a slippery thing. For enthusiasts such as Lamb, it was a season of celebration, a chance to get very drunk and party. After all, it was only a few generations ago that parliament had tried and failed to reduce the whole thing to the status of any other Sunday. But for the Georgian fashionable elites, the Puritans had had something of a point. All that riotous celebration and forced jollity seemed to them a tad plebian.

Etching of debauchery under the mistletoe, 1812
Four couples in states of undress under the mistletoe, in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1812 etching. Some saw Christmas as the season of revelry, but the elites looked down on extended frivolity (Photo by Bridgeman Images)

By the early 19th century the Twelve Days had dwindled to one, sometimes two, days of excess. All that feasting was now concentrated into one meal, Christmas dinner, held generally around 5pm on the 25th (later for the very fashionable). At its core were the two edible emblems of England, trotted out for any celebratory feast and deeply patriotic.

Roast beef and plum pudding appeared as part of the upper-class three-course à la Française (where every dish is served at the same time) meal. The beef was roasted in front of a roaring fire, while the pudding was a cousin of plum pottage, sharing with it the dried fruit and spice, but now mixed with suet and flour and boiled in a cloth to form a cannon-ball shaped pudding. The two were consumed as complementary flavours and surrounded with a choice of other dishes, including unseasonal vegetables and a lot of game. Both were a demonstration of wealth.

Other specifically Christmassy foods included mince pies, served, again, as part of the main meal; turkey and other farmed birds; and Twelfth Cake. This last was, as the name suggests, eaten on Twelfth Night. It was a rich fruit cake, iced and decorated in often lurid forms. In the early Georgian period a bean would be concealed within, the finder becoming king for the night. By the 1780s, the beans had been replaced with revellers buying packs of character cards. They were available at all price points and very popular.

Want to cook up some history?

Inspired to cook up some treats from the past? Browse our archive of historical recipes, including:

The Victorian Christmas dinner: cooking up the modern Christmas

Four pigs carry Christmas dishes in this c1880 image
Four pigs carry Christmas dishes in this c1880 image. The Victorians paved the way for many of our 21st-century Christmas celebrations (Photo by Bridgeman Images)

The Victorians have the reputation for creating the modern Christmas. This is largely true, and Christmas became both more family-friendly and more commercialised in the almost 64 years Queen Victoria was on the throne. It is to the Victorians that we owe the rebranding of Twelfth Cake to Christmas cake, and plum pudding to Christmas pudding. The decoupling of the pudding from roast beef, as well as its placing toward the end of the meal, would have been unthinkable in 1837, but was largely complete by 1901.

For the rich, beef remained a huge part of the Christmas spread, along with roast game. Meat in general was prestigious. The poor joined goose clubs, saving all year for their Christmas goose. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit’s bird would have come from such a source.

Stuffed and roasted in front of a fire, the normal accompaniments were potatoes and Brussels sprouts, the first printed recipes for which appeared in the 1840s. The wealthy still favoured unseasonal produce, including asparagus. Jerusalem artichoke soup also enjoyed a brief vogue as a Christmas(ish) starter.

Service style was changing too, from the simultaneous serving of many dishes at once that the Georgians had favoured to the new, sequential style known as à la Russe. But it was slow to catch on, especially at Christmas, for the lure of a groaning table was hard to resist (and à la Russe was ridiculously complicated and expensive for the vast majority of people, as it required many servants.)

Queen Victoria adopted the new style in the 1870s. Her Christmas dinners were remarkably consistent. Roast beef, woodcock pie, a raised game pie, a stuffed boar’s head and a huge brawn (a vertical slice of pig, rolled and poached) appeared every year on the sideboard. The main meal included sprouts, game and mince pies, now with very little meat.

Another common dish on upper-class tables was boiled turkey. In 1861 journalist and cookery book writer Isabella Beeton wrote: “Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey.” However, it was still far from the majority choice.

The WW2 Christmas Dinner: mock meals and chronic shortages

A butcher displays Christmas turkeys and encourages shoppers to register so they can buy a bird, 1946. Rationing and shortages made procuring meat difficult
A butcher displays Christmas turkeys and encourages shoppers to register so they can buy a bird, 1946. Rationing and shortages made procuring meat difficult (Photo by Alamy)

In many ways it was the stresses of life in wartime, and the 14 years of rationing that accompanied it, that cemented the Christmas menu in England. (Irish Christmases remained more beef-based and the Welsh favoured goose, while in Scotland Hogmanay was more important.) Because so many foods that had come to symbolise Christmas were unobtainable during the war, when they returned it was to jubilation. Meals also became smaller in the 1950s, while some traditional dishes fell away. Of course, the meals people ate were still varied, but the ideal Christmas menus printed in books and newspapers became increasingly rigid.

In 1939 Christmas was not unduly challenging, but with 1940 came rationing. Although the ration would fluctuate, for most of the next decade – and beyond – there tended to be very limited fat, sugar, eggs and meat. Even those things that remained unrationed (or, later, were restricted by a points system), such as dried fruit, were scarce.

But Christmas was incredibly important for morale, and at a time when diaries and letters are full of food – getting it, longing for it, lacking it – dinner remained a focus. Writers and broadcasters rushed to suggest ways to get by, from custard powder in lieu of eggs (nasty), to dried eggs (nastier), to a wide and rather optimistic range of “mock” dishes. Mock meats were based on potato and sausagemeat, and mock marzipan on dried beans. The Ministry of Food remained upbeat, declaring that fruit bowls were easily replaced with vegetables: “The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delightful as it tastes.”

Christmas dinners inclined toward meat and lots of veg. Those who had space kept rabbits or chickens, to be sacrificed for the festive table. Dig for Victory was in full swing, and potatoes, carrots and other easily grown specimens were ubiquitous. Restaurants also remained open, albeit restricted, and boomed. The rich, as ever, fared better – the Savoy and other such hotels sourced game and salmon from their clients and raided their well-stocked larders. But even there, the Christmas puddings were more carrot than fruit, and custard came from a tin.

The 21st-century Christmas: out with the new, in with the old

A table laden with Christmas food, with a roasted turkey centre stage
Although the modern Christmas dinner is expected to feature turkey and Brussels sprouts, these foods aren’t on every table. Only 70 per cent of Britons eat turkey, for instance (Photo by Getty Images)

If you read the papers in December, you might be forgiven for thinking that the British Christmas meal is utterly uniform: turkey, roast potatoes and sprouts, with Christmas pudding to follow, plus mince pies and Christmas cake. But only around 70 per cent of us eat turkey, even fewer opt for sprouts, and Christmas pudding is in decline.

However, for many of us, today’s typical Christmas meal is almost identical to menus from the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s. And in the idealised presentation with all of the main course dishes served on the table at once, it isn’t that far removed from the dinners of 250 years ago.

2020 was challenging, and 2021 may be the year of either sudden shortages or panic-bought pastry. Will this provoke greater change?

These aren’t the only issues facing the Christmas dinner in the 21st century. The average meal is around 5,000 calories and meat-heavy: reflective of earlier, more physical eras when such feasts were much anticipated one-offs. And it requires a huge amount of work (often still reliant on female labour), for when it came together, from around 1870 to 1940, in middle-class homes, servants – even if only a daily char – were still the aspiration, if not the norm.

A trot through Christmas dinners in the past shows that our apparently traditional meal is anything but. Whether rich or poor, we’ve eaten a vast range of foods at Christmas in previous centuries, and although that range has narrowed in the last 200 years, the emphasis on certain staples is more in the mind than on the table. The ideal 21st-century Christmas dinner is old-fashioned, partly as it is a time of huge nostalgia and memory-making, and partly precisely because we only eat it once a year.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. If we truly embrace the past, our repertoire would expand immensely. So try the raised pies, hearty stews, glazed vegetables and rich ice creams. For if we really liked turkey and trimmings, surely we’d eat it more than once a year?


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Dr Annie Gray is appearing on a four-part HistoryExtra podcast series on Christmas feasts through the ages, running through December

Authors

Dr Annie GrayFood historian

Dr Annie Gray is the resident food historian on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.

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