Whilst at its core a religious festival, Christmas is also traditionally a time of food and drink, and spending time with friends and family to help make it through the dark and cold winter months. But how did this religious festival become synonymous with feasting, and who decided everyone should eat turkey and mince pies?
For his podcast, Dan Snow joined food historian (and author of At Christmas We Feast) Annie Gray in the kitchen where they cooked up some delicious mid-winter fare, including wassail (a beautiful alcoholic punch) and proper mince pies. Here are the traditional recipes Dan and Annie followed – as well as an insight into Christmases past.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas (traditionally from 25 December through to Epiphany on 6 January) were important in medieval times for those wealthy enough to afford to eat well throughout the whole period.
Pre-Reformation, Britain was Catholic and generally the time of advent was seen as a period of fast where traditionally fish was eaten – stockfish was generally eaten by the poor, whereas by contrast wealthy people sometimes ate such exotic fare as beaver tail and porpoises. Once Christmas arrived, the fasting period was over and it was the time to eat lots of meat, with 12 days of gargantuan amounts of feasting – if you were wealthy enough.
Wassail is an alcoholic punch that was often drunk in the autumn and winter and at feast times. Although it is often thought to come from the medieval era, it was actually an Anglo-Saxon drink and drink response, where people would shout, drink, hail, and everyone would go wassail. Wassail means a lot of things for a lot of different people and has many different definitions, from fertility and orchards, to the mulling of beer or cider.
Annie Gray took Dan through a 19th century recipe from 1890 (there aren’t very many recipes for wassail). This version is a hot wassail, as wassail may have been drunk in the past. As the price of sugar had greatly reduced by the 1890s (as you could obtain beet sugar which meant no tax), the recipe is very sugary!
6 medium-sized eating apples such as Coxes, russets or Braeburns
6 tbsp brown sugar
3 tsp butter
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 blade of mace (or a pinch of ground mace)
1 stick of cinnamon
8 cardamom pods, hit to split
1/2 tsp whole coriander seeds
2 bottles of white wine – hock or similar
340g / 12oz granulated sugar
4 egg yolks and 2 egg whites
Start by roasting the apples: core them, but don’t peel them. Stuff the centres with a tablespoon of sugar, rub them all over with butter, and bake them on a greased baking sheet at 200C / 390F for around 30 minutes until cooked through and very tender.
While they are cooking, put the spices in a pan with 150ml / 5fl oz of water and bring to the boil. Add the wine and sugar and bring to a simmer. In a large heatproof serving bowl, whisk the eggs until light and frothy. Add a ladleful of hot wine, whisking well, and then add another. Then add the rest of the wine, whisking – you should get a reasonable froth. Remove your apples from the oven and add them carefully to the bowl. Keep the wassail hot, and serve in mugs or teacups, breaking up the apples as you fancy.
Mince pies (and mincemeat) are one of the most venerable foods of Christmas, and were often originally known as Christmas pies. Old recipes show how traditionally around a third of an original mince pie was made up of minced meat, a further third from suet, and the remaining third from dried fruit. They were usually made from chopped up cow suet – as this was a hard fat, when it was melted it created a velvety feel and texture, which also made for a very light pastry.
A lot of the early mince pies used beef, some used mutton, and there were even versions with fish and eggs. They were thus a mixture of a sweet and a savoury dish. As Annie Gray explained to Dan, the demarcation that we’ve got today between sweet and savoury wasn’t one that was used so much in the past. Sugar was expensive and thus in the Tudor period, was consequently used almost more as a spice.
In the 17th century Britain started to colonise the West Indies and brought in slave labour which led sugar to become cheaper. Over the next two centuries, the meat quantity of a mince pie slowly dwindled. Very little meat was left in mince pies – just enough to give them a bit of a fat note. (By the 20th century, most minced-meats were meat-free, though not vegetarian.)
Iconic Victorian writer Mrs Beeton was famous for writing tips, recipes and advice on running a middle class household in Victorian Britain, but some of her recipes were actually plagiarised from a woman called Eliza Acton. Eliza’s minced meat pie recipe (used by Dan and Annie in the podcast) was very much aimed at a middle class audience. The working classes would probably have bought their mince pies as it was unlikely they would have had an oven. Here is the recipe:
Of a fresh-boiled ox-tongue, or inside of roasted sirloin, 1lb
Stoned raisins and minced apples, each 2lbs
Currants and fine Lisbon sugar, each 2 1/2 lbs
Candied orange, lemon or citron ring, 8 to 16 oz
Boiled lemons, 2 large
Rinds of two others, grated
Salt, 1/2 oz
Nutmegs, 2 small
Pounded mace, 1 large teaspoonful, and rather more of ginger
Good sherry or Madeira, 1/2 pint
Brandy, 1/2 pint
To one pound of an unsalted ox-tongue, boiled tender and cut free from the rind, add two pounds of fine stoned raisins, two of beef kidney-suet, two pounds and a half of currants, well cleaned and dried, two of good apples, two and a half of Fine Lisbon sugar, from half to a whole pound of candied peel according to the taste, the grated rinds of two large lemons and two more boiled quite tender, and chopped up entirely, with the exception of the pips, two small nutmegs, half an ounce of salt, a large teaspoonful of pounded mace, rather more of ginger in powder, half a pint of brandy, and as much good sherry or Madeira.
Mince these ingredients separately, and mix the others all well before the brandy and the wine are added; press the whole into a jar or jars, and keep it closely covered. It should be stored for a few days before it is used, and will remain good for many weeks. Some persons like a slight flavouring of cloves in addition to the other spices; others add the juice of two or three lemons, and a larger quantity of brandy. The inside of a tender and well-roasted sirloin of beef will answer quite as well as the tongue.
Obvs – the lemons will be sufficiently boiled in from one hour to one and a quarter.
Whether turkey, swan, or peacock, plentiful supplies of many types of roast meat would have been eaten in wealthy households in Christmases past, including pork – either rolled and boiled or a Boar’s Head, as per the Boar’s Head carol.
Once boars were extinct in Britain, the super wealthy imported these from Germany, otherwise a pig’s head was made to look like a boar. Recipes in Victorian cookery books included advice on how to get it cut back at the second vertebrae, bone it, brine it in red wine for two weeks, turn the skin everyday, stuff and even swaddle it. The head was then boiled for 7 hours and more red wine added, then piped with lard or pastry was put across (possibly with a family crest), and its ears perked up.
By the Edwardian period, a caterer would cook this, and it was good to have a reputable boar’s head supplier to avoid any cheating by using soot to colour it.
How ideas of Christmas evolved
Most of modern Christmas as we know it was brought in by the Victorians (such as decorating Christmas trees, sending cards and buying presents), along with a sprinkling of nostalgia from the 1950s. However, Biblical events aside, the idea of Christmas goes back a lot further.
The Christian church adopted a lot of early pagan druid festivals which involved cosiness and coming together in winter. For rural farmers, by winter most of their cattle would have been slaughtered, their fields muddy and the days cold and short. It was a boring and bleak time, especially for the poor, so for many, the best thing to do was light a fire, get drunk and eat lots to try and forget about their woes – a tradition universal throughout northern climes.
Many foods now synonymous with Christmas originally came from the Americas (such as turkey and potatoes) and weren’t really associated with Christmas until around the 1520s and 30s. Turkey was originally seen as a festive winter dish as it could feed many and was seasonal, like other feast birds of the time including goose and chicken. (Swan was another, though rare outside the upper classes.)
It was only around the 1960’s when turkey became associated with Christmas Day itself – aristocratic tables in the past would have different meats and lots of different vegetable dishes, offering a huge amount of choice and variety.
The Puritans thought Christmas was a wasteful, slightly pagan festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities, with excessive social behaviour such as getting drunk and promiscuity. Even back then, Christmas was viewed has having become very commercialised (e.g. too many orange sellers profiteering off the back of the demand for orange juice).
In 1644 an ordinance confirmed the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. From this point until the Restoration in 1660, Christmas was officially illegal. (In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made clear that festival days, including Christmas, were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.) This proved very unpopular, and pro-Christmas riots broke out.
Around the 1840s, there was a feeling that the idea of Christmas had dwindled. Fashionable Georgian society hadn’t been particularly into Christmas aside from its feasting element, and consequently the number of bank holidays in the year had reduced. This also coincided with the first phase of the industrial revolution when fewer people needed to hunker down at home in winter as they were working in factories, and developments in agrarian husbandry meant cattle could be kept more easily throughout winter.
With this backdrop, there was a feeling that Christmas had lost its way and people became worried about losing it. The Victorians had a nostalgia for what they perceived to be the great Christmases of Tudor times and decided that Christmas should be put back to what they thought of as Christmas – about hospitality and giving to charity. (While Prince Albert is credited with bringing in the idea of Christmas trees, this was a German tradition already present in Britain through German bakeries and indeed through Queen Charlotte, who had Christmas trees in the 1780s.)
Annie Gray’s book, At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, is published by Profile Books and available to buy now.