From mince pies to traditional Christmas pudding, we look into the history behind the festive favourites we enjoy around the table each Christmas. Read on for our mouth-watering history of Christmas dinner…
The history of Christmas dinner
The tradition of celebrating Christmas with a feast dates back to before the Middle Ages, but it’s only really during the Victorian period that Christmas dinner and other popular traditions – such as gift giving, tree decoration and cards – really came into their own.
At the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was barely celebrated in the UK. During the Victorian era it developed into a family-focused celebration that centred in large part around sharing a meal with loved ones.
The Charles Dickens book A Christmas Carol is often credited with popularising Christmas and creating a template for its celebration. This short novella about a miser who learns the value of human kindness after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve also helped to associate the values of charity, peace and happiness with the day.
Why roast turkey?
Turkey wasn’t always the dish of choice at Christmas. Traditionally meats such as beef and goose were more commonly eaten, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that turkey began to gain popularity amongst the wealthy. As living standards improved in the 20th century, the turkey was recognised as the perfect size to share amongst a large family and thus became the preferred dish for Christmas dinner.
We asked some top bloggers whether they would go for goose or turkey at Christmas, and although most said they’d choose turkey over goose, few were actually having turkey this year:
Kiran Kishore, The Swindian: “For Christmas dinner, I would pick turkey over goose, but this would require some time off from my day job, as it really needs to be done properly! The process requires brining it for 2-3 days, cooking it in a water bath, confit-ing it in olive oil and finally crisping it in a frying pan.
“Having said that, I will actually be enjoying Fondue Chinoise on Christmas Eve, which is the traditional meal in Switzerland. This ‘Chinese fondue’ consists of a pot of hot broth in the middle of the table, into which everybody dips pieces of raw meat. It poaches perfectly within just a few minutes and can then be eaten with a variety of sauces, rice and salad. It certainly saves a lot of time and effort in comparison with a proper Christmas turkey, and it is just as delicious. There are many traditions that go along with it – for example, my family makes whoever drops their meat in the soup sing a song of their choice!”
Chris Osburn, tikichris: “If those are my only two options, I guess I’d have to go with turkey. Can I big up Copas Turkeys in Berkshire here? I’ve been a fan for a few years now and try to roast one of their succulent birds every year. As an expat American though, I do it in late November for Thanksgiving. I’ve lived in London for about a decade but this year actually will the second time I’ve stayed in London for Christmas. As my girlfriend and I did last year, we’ll probably have fish for Christmas. Norwegian smoked salmon from Hansen Lydersen in Stoke Newington is a treat!”
When you carve your turkey this year, don’t forget to pull the wishbone for good luck! This ritual can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who left the y-shaped collarbone to dry and then wished upon it to seek special knowledge from the gods. Today we just close our eyes and pull hard, hoping to get the larger end of the wishbone – which is said to mean our wish will be granted.
Delicious trimmings and pudding
Every family is different, but on most dinner plates in the UK you’ll find Brussels sprouts, pigs in blankets (tiny sausages wrapped in bacon), roast potatoes, stuffing and gravy. Love them or hate them, the Brussels sprout is said to have been a feature at Christmas dinner for at least 400 years.
And of course, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a delicious pudding, a tradition with roots in medieval England. It is said that in 1714 King George officially re-introduced it as part of the Christmas dinner after it was banned by the Puritans in the 1600s.
Check out some more festive delights from bloggers’ tables:
Helen, livelifelovecake: “My mum cooks the best turkey, wrapped in bacon and filled with chestnut stuffing. Brussels sprouts with a generous slab of butter are the ultimate accompaniment and for pudding there’s only one contender; brandy-soaked Christmas pudding with thick vanilla custard and lashings of double cream.”
Micaela Levachyov, Stylish London Living: “Christmas for me is always a bit different – there won’t be goose or turkey for me – I am vegetarian and have been now for over 10 years, so when planning for a festive feast it’s important to think about the alternative options.
“My Christmas dinner will consist of a tasty Quorn roast and ‘pigs in blankets’ (Quorn sausages wrapped in Quorn bacon) accompanied by an extraordinary array of vegetables including roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, peas and sweetcorn, carrots, broccoli, parsnips and not forgetting the traditional Brussels sprouts! My plateful will be swimming in flavourful veggie-friendly gravy with stuffing and cranberry sauce on the side. Yum!
“Of course Christmas dinner wouldn’t be completed without a sweet treat at the end – and mine will be a bowlful of Xmas pudding with lashings of vanilla custard with a lump of melting brandy butter! If I still have space after this (doubtful) I will be going back for a homemade mince pie.”
Decked with a holly sprig (for good luck) and doused in flaming brandy to fend off evil spirits, a Christmas pudding is similar to fruitcake but is steamed. For many, the ritual of Christmas pudding making begins five weeks before Christmas on ‘Stir Up Sunday’, the last Sunday before the Christian season of Advent begins.
Don’t forget to add a coin for luck, as historically Christmas puddings had trinkets – including silver coins (sixpence), thimbles and even rings – hidden inside for good fortune. Many classic pudding recipes today from celebrity chefs still include a coin as an optional ingredient.
Indulge in a sweet, crumbly festive favourite
The mince pie has existed in Great Britain since the 13th century and was traditionally made of meat. One recipe from 1694 recommends ‘chopped and boiled calf’s tongue mixed with beef suet, raisins, spices and lemon rind’ – a bit different from the gourmet treats from Nigella or Jamie that we indulge in today!
In the 19th century mince pies underwent a bit of a revolution – the mix started to be made with sweet fruit mince instead of meat. It also became common to make them in impressive shapes, such as hearts, stars and circles – much closer in appearance to the iconic bite-size delights we now enjoy.
Rich in taste and tradition
Custom states that a mince pie should be eaten on each day of the 12 days of Christmas. For good luck you should make a wish while eating your first pie of the season – and to refuse one is unlucky.
Nowadays children leave mince pies out for Santa (with beer, whisky or brandy, of course), plus a carrot for the reindeer. There are also superstitions such as not cutting a mince pie with a knife and only ever stirring your mince mixture clockwise. With more than 300 million sold at Christmas every year, the mince pie is certainly not likely to lose popularity anytime soon.
Enjoy Christmas delights at a Guoman Hotel
If all this talk of Christmas dinner has your taste buds tingling, then why not pay a visit to The Royal Horseguards Hotel for a Festive Afternoon Tea? These are available until the 1st of January 2014, so there’s still time to meet up with family and friends for a decadent festive feast.
Whatever is on the menu for you this Christmas, enjoy your well-earned break and best wishes for the New Year!