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A Plate of History – The History of the Christmas Feast

November 29th, 2023

The Delicious History of the Christmas Feast

A Deconstruction of the Christmas Meal & Traditions

In this History of the Christmas Feast we will take you step by step through time – discovering how we have ended up with the traditional Christmas dinner of today.

Umami Heaven

Know where your Christmas food and traditions originate from – and it will help you create an amazing Christmas feast. The best thing about Christmas is of course the feast with friends and family. Each mouthful of the Christmas meal becomes a mouthful of umami heaven. Each taste is unique as there are almost infinite ways to mix turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, bread sauce, and brussel sprouts. If they are all on the fork at the same time – this is food heaven! Mixing the sweet with the sour and the complex textures, ranging from smooth gravy to crunchy potatoes. 

Guilt-Free Feasting

Of course – the Christmas feast is also guilt-free. Feasting at this time – made all the sense in the world – our instincts are that we were in the middle of a bleak mid- winter and you need extra reserves to survive until the next crop. Three months of cold and bare trees -with another three months to go -so feasting was a survival necessity – something we repeat comfortingly to ourselves as yet another fork of turkey and gravy is shovelled into our mouths. It clear our instincts have not figured out the creation of supermarkets and the global food industry – where everything is in season now.

The Real Christmas Story – A Plate of History

Yet the Christmas story is not the simple story of the Birth of Christ. Actually just like your umami meal – Christmas is a collision of cultures and civilizations, traditions and myths.  Christmas is composed of a complex layer of ancient traditions, pagan rituals, cultural influences and religion – with a recent dose of commercialism.

So let’s enjoy pealing back the layers of the Christmas Feast and traditions to find – like Sherlock Holmes the real origins. Once we have these identified these clear strata – then we can be creative – accept the pagan and reject the roman or reject the Victorian and accept the Tudor. This knowledge will help you create your own unique flavours and Christmas traditions with confidence. Just like a master of wines who can identify the grape and the vineyard of the wine he is tasting so the same could be said of the chef who knows the origins of each piece of food on his Christmas platter.

 

Ancient Druid Christmas Feasts

Feast like a Druid – Roasted Pig with Crab Apples and Hazelnuts

Christmas starts with the Stars – as it is the Winter Solstice – when the Northern hemisphere is furthest from the Sun.  Chronologically – most things start with the Druids and they begin with the Stars for Ancient Druids, that priestly Celtic class, celebrated the Winter Solstice as one of their major festivals. Druids were deeply connected to nature and as the Winter Solstice, marked the shortest day and longest night of the year, it was obviously of great spiritual significance.  

Christmas Roast Druids Collecting Misteltoe History of Christmas

It was a crucial turning point in the natural cycle, signifying the gradual return of longer days and the strengthening of the sun. Druidic prayers or rituals expressed gratitude for the past year’s harvest, their survival through the season and blessings for the coming year.

Feasting starts with Roast Pig and Crab Apple

In the late Neolithic period, the archeological evidence supports evidence that pigs born in the spring were killed around midwinter. The pork had been roasted on spits. From plant remains, they were also eating crab apples, hazelnuts, sloes and blackberries. 

Christmas Meal Medieval Hog Roast

Bonfires and Light Celebrations:

Druids lit large bonfires to represent the return of the sun. To celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and to encourage the sun’s renewal and growth.

Christmas Bonfire

Sacred Plants:

Mistletoe and holly, were considered sacred by the Druids and would have played a role in their Winter Solstice celebrations. Mistletoe, in particular, was regarded as a symbol of fertility and rebirth. 

We have the Druids to thank for the Sunday roast – of suckling pig with crab apples and the symbolic decorations of Mistletoe and holly

Roman Christmas Feasts

Gifting, Sweet Treats and Holiday

What have the Roman’s done for us? Well how about inventing Christmas as the Best of Times

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the agricultural god Saturn. It took place around the winter solstice. This was the jolliest Roman festival in the calendar; a fact which led Catullus to describe it as ‘the best of times.’ Many Roman aspects have been incorporated into Christmas:

Saturnalia Roman Tradition of Christmas

Holiday of Liberation

A week long holiday of feasting, gift-giving, and revelry, when all classes, including slaves could take time off work.  The statue of Saturn normally had its feet bound in wool.  The wool binding was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation. 

Role Reversals

During this merrymaking – role-reversals was a key feature.  Reversal of ordinary roles and social conventions.  Masters would wear the freed-slave felt hat (pilleus) and wait on their slaves (or at least eat together in the same room). For a short period slaves were permitted to do as they wished and even display a touch of insolence. Slaves are now able to gamble, get drunk in public, and throw aside the cloak of decorum. The toga was ditched in favour of more relaxed clothing. The time was associated with feasts, partying, game playing, and merrymaking for all.

The Lord of Misrule

The Saturnalia was presided over by a king, chosen especially for the occasion, known as the Saturnalicius princeps or ‘leader of the Saturnalia.’ Sometimes he is referred to as the ‘Lord of Misrule‘ as he was selected from the lowliest members of a household and given the right to conduct light-hearted mischief.

Saturnalia Lord of Misrule Roman Christmas History

This survived into medieval period as the Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools. His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked!” or “Throw him into cold water!”, had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium.  He creates and (mis)rules a chaotic and absurd world.  

The Pilleus hat has a remarkable resemblance to that of Father Christmas today.

Pileus Hat Christmas History of Santa

Gifting, Jokes and Jellied Figs

The end of the celebrations was marked by the buying and giving of candles, such trifles as jellied figs, and especially the small terracotta figurines or sigilla. it was also traditional for people to give money to their dependents.  

Small gifts were the norm – these were often the pottery or wax figurines, candles, or “gag gifts“, of which Augustus was particularly fond. 

Children would receive toys

In many ways not much has changed as Children received toys as gifts. including writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, books, and pets.

Oldest Money Box Piggy Bank Roman History

Corporate Gifts

Patrons or “bosses” might pass along a gratuity to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts. In a practice that might be compared to modern corporate gift hampers, bonuses, greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts. Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal.

Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts. Catullus received a book of bad poems by “the worst poet of all time” as a joke from a friend.

Do we have the Romans to thank for Father Christmas – with his pilleus hat and the role of the Lord of Misrule. The gift giving to clients and children, greeting cards  and even the bad joke in Crackers.

 

Middle Ages and Yule Celebrations

As we move through the ages on our History of the Christmas Feast – there does seem to be one constant – that the Christmas holiday were a time of feasting with the more ruckus,  the more drinking, the more gambling, and the more overeating the better. Falstaffian excess is the order of the day.

Middle Ages Christmas Feast Celebration History

The Roman legacy of Saturnalia continued well into the Middle Ages as the celebration of Christmas evolved with the fusion of Christian beliefs and existing pagan traditions

Of course, role-reversal and cross dressing continued – because it was so much fun – in some parts of France, during the boy bishop’s tenure, the clergy would wear masks or dress in women’s clothing, a reversal of roles in line with the traditional character of Saturnalia. For instance, like Saturnalia, during the late medieval period and early Renaissance, many towns in England elected a “Lord of Misrule” at Christmas time to preside over the Feast of Fools. This custom was sometimes associated with the Twelfth Night or Epiphany. 

Twelfth Night Christmas Celebration

A common tradition in western Europe was to drop a bean, coin, or other small token into a cake or pudding; whoever found the object would become the “King (or Queen) of the Bean”. Of course this tradition continues to this day – with a silver coin in a Christmas pudding.

Yule

Yule, a pagan winter solstice festival in Scandinavia, involved feasting to celebrate the return of the sun. As Christianity spread, Yule traditions merged with Christmas, and the Yule log, a large log burned in the hearth, became a symbol of Christmas warmth.

Yule Log Christmas Pudding Feast History

But this is where things get really interesting – there is no doubt that Christmas mixes pagan traditions with Christianity. This is really the beginning of what you might call our modern Christmas. Taking popular traditions from pagan events made sense – if people enjoyed these events they were more likely to participate.  

 

The Cult of Christianity and Dionysius

Wine, Partying and Overindulgence

Even today it’s difficult to reconcile a Christian Christmas with feasting and wine. The Church has little to do or say with regards to partying and ecstasy. 

But that would actually be a grave mis-understanding for there are some striking similarities between Bacchus, the god of wine and Jesus Christ (we will use Bacchus and Dionysius as interchangeable). To ease the transition to Christianity, early Christians blended the myth of Jesus with Bacchus / Dionysius. By likening his imagery to an already existing Roman god, Christianity found a foothold in the Empire while also protecting its followers from religious treason. Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy, was the Christians’ iconographic choice.

Bacchus God of Wine Roman Tradition History

Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, viticulture, ecstasy, madness, festivals, liberation, androgyny, theatre, and re-birth. The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian Mysteries, and probably arrived in Rome c. 200 BC via the Greek colonies in southern Italy, and from Etruria

Bacchus was associated with mental and physical duality. In Euripides’ Bacchae, Bacchus came to Greece from a far off land and shook up the Thracian king with his new religious practices and effeminate ways. The Bacchanalia, a procession of satyrs and overly drunken women, led to the king’s disapproval of Bacchus.  

Bacchus and Jesus H Christ.

Bacchus and Jesus H Christ share many of the universal values required from the gods. The similarities are striking for both Jesus and Bacchus follow a well trodden path on the iiteration of the “dying-and-rising god,”  Both are born or raised in lowly circumstances and persecuted by a more powerful figure that wants to kill them — Dionysus by Hera, Jesus by Herod. 

Similarities between the two gods are as follows:

Parallels between Bacchus and Jesus Christ

  •  Born of a mortal woman but fathered by a god, both Bacchus and Jesus were the centre of mystery cults
  • Both gods return from the dead;  Dionysus descends into the Underworld to rescue the soul of his mother from Hades, and bring her up to Olympus. Dionysus can bring people back from Hades. The souls of the dead are brought back to Earth to participate in the three-day festival. His own death at the hands of the Titans, as Zagreus, mirrors the winemaking process — grapes are torn apart and crushed into must, which is then left to ferment in caves (a tomblike, chthonic location), that is then “magically” transmuted and “reborn” as wine. When the new wine is opened at Anthesteria, it bestows vitality and mystical trance upon those who drink it.
  • Both could turn water into wine.  Both gods give wine to their followers to drink. For both Bacchus and Christ, a filled cup of wine contained the divine spirit of their god, the occasion to imbibe was formal, devoted to fellowship and centred on a mystery – that conferred by the partaking of bread and wine.

Unusually for a god, Dionysus actually does walk the earth to spread his teachings among humans, accompanied by a band of disciples (consisting of insane women and lust-crazed goat-men, all roaring drunk). Unlike all of the other Olympians, Dionysus spends the beginning of his life on earth, among humans. Dionysus wandered all over the eastern Mediterranean, establishing his cult and teaching viticulture to humans:

 In some context, the existence of wine itself is treated as a miracle of Dionysus, mostly because of the psychological effect of drinking it. In The Bacchae, Tiresias describes wine as liquid joy, and as the divine essence of Dionysus poured out for the sake of humanity:

“But he who came afterward,

Semele’s offspring, invented the wet drink of the grape

as a counter-balance to Demeter’s bread. He introduced it

to mortals to stop their sorrow and pain.

Whenever men are filled with the stream of the grape-vine

they can sleep and forget the evils of the day.”

—Euripides, The Bacchae 277–282

  •  Both Dionysus and Christ are associated with curing the sick and protecting the weak. Dionysus is on his way up to Olympus after having completed his descent into the Underworld. He finds Hephaestus, who had been literally thrown down from Olympus by his parents, for having gotten between them in an argument. The fall permanently damaged Hephaestus’ legs, and he cannot return to Olympus by himself. Dionysus brings him back with him, with Hephaestus riding on the back of a donkey. The image of Dionysus with the crippled god is an especially poignant one – the pathos of which with the donkey is not surprising the image pops up again with Christ.

 

  • Both Dionysus and Jesus – were gods live among men.  Unlike all of the other Olympians, Dionysus spends the beginning of his life on earth, among humans. Dionysus wandered all over the eastern Mediterranean, establishing his cult and teaching viticulture. Jesus wanders among his people and lives in the desert for 40 days and nights. 

 

  • Both gods are first depicted as youthful and feminine.  Bacchus is intended to be androgynous, with long flowing hair and a soft face.  Jesus, however, is in part portrayed young to reveal his innocence, highlighting his purity.  
  • There is also an important similarity between these two figures in that their early imagery reveals that their faiths were initially targeted toward women in the beginning of their worships.  Men were the religious leaders of both societies, and women were commonly ignored or pushed to the side.  To gain a position within the Roman culture, both Bacchus and Jesus had to show a value for women, giving them a voice in the male-dominated world.  The primary worshippers of Bacchus were the Maenads, women who reached a heightened level of ecstasy through excessive drinking.  According to Greco-Roman thought, the drinking allowed the women (and the few men who participated) to achieve a spiritual release they were otherwise not allowed because of the norms of their society.  Religious worship, however, temporarily exempted them from these rules. 

Similarly, Jesus showed an interest in women by taking the time to heal those who otherwise were ignored and exiled.  One of the images found in the catacombs relates to the Woman with the Issue of Blood who was cleansed by Jesus after reaching for his robe, her faith in his power alone healing her.  According to the Biblical account, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who herself travelled with the twelve apostles.  Both Bacchus and Jesus emphasized the importance of women early in their mythologies by providing women with the attention they desired from their deities right away.  By focusing on women, a large faction of supporters rose around both men quickly, the power of the forgotten ones.  This was a very strong image in both Greco-Roman and early Christian culture, and both were commonly depicted with women in their art.

  • Jesus and Bacchus are divine kings; heirs to the Universe. Their father to whom they are an heir is either Zeus or God. The epithet they both share is  “Son of God.” Dionysus certainly isn’t the only begotten son of God, as anyone who knows anything about Zeus can attest, but he does play a unique role in comparison to Zeus’s other sons and daughters. 
  • Both Jesus and Bacchus are associated with life, death, and the afterlife. They are, if not literal incarnations of it.

 

Terrific Tudor Feasts

The next step in our History of the Christmas Feast is the Tudor Christmas!

Tudor Christmas meant serious feasting for the royal household – and that meant lots of meat. The traditional choices were beef, venison and wild boar, but the Tudors also ate a range of wild animals and birds that we wouldn’t eat today, including badger, blackbird and woodcock. Turkeys first came to England during the Tudor period were seen as an exotic delicacy. They were walked from Norfolk and Suffolk all the way to market in London. Large feasts also could include peacock, souse (made from pickled pigs feet and ears) and roast swan. A popular Tudor centrepiece was the boar’s head, which would be carried into the banqueting hall on a gold or silver dish accompanied by trumpets and songs. 

History of Christmas Feast Tudor Banquet

The Tudors also ate Christmas Pie, made of a pigeon, placed inside a partridge, inside a chicken, inside a goose, inside a turkey, inside a pastry case called a coffin, served with hare and other game birds on the side – what a mouthful! 

Tudor Christmas Pie

Other Tudor Christmas food had symbolic meaning. Twelfth Night cake was a type of fruit cake, tasting a bit like a giant brioche. It was baked with a coin or dried bean hidden in the mixture, and whoever found it became the King or Queen to host the evening’s entertainment!

Twelfth Night Cake Tudor Christmas Tradition

Wassailing was also a part of Tudor Christmas celebrations. The tradition was to drink a toast to the fruit trees to produce a good crop next year. Large wooden bowls holding up to a gallon of punch would be filled with hot ale or cider, sugar, spices, and apples, with a crust of bread at the bottom. The bowl was offered to the most important person in the household first, who would drink and pass it on. Wassail!

 

Georgian Christmas Feasts

Next in the History of Christmas feasts is the Georgians. Wealthy Georgians held lavish dinners and parties, eating huge quantities of food. Similarly to the Tudors, they ate a lot of meat at Christmas, particularly beef, mutton and venison, using it as a way to demonstrate their wealth and status. Poultry was usually served as a side dish, and the main choice of bird was goose, though turkey was now becoming more popular for families who could afford it. Other favourite Georgian Christmas foods included turtle soup, fish, cockles and mussels, brawn (a meat jelly made from the boiled head of a calf seasoned with spices), mince pies, plum pudding and frumenty – a kind of porridge made with grains, almonds, currants and sugar, which was often served with meat.

Georgian Christmas Feast

Because so much food was eaten in large houses, a lot of it was prepared in advance. Boiled puddings would be made by kitchen staff a week before they were needed, and serving cold foods was usual. It was also usual to serve Christmas puddings and mince pies at the same time as the roast meats! The Georgian recipes for mince pies and Christmas pudding contained less meat than medieval and Tudor ones, and more dried fruit, spices and sugar, though even in the 1850s, food writer Eliza Acton’s recipe for mince pies still contained three tablespoons of diced beef as well as suet (an animal fat). Twelfth Night cakes were also very popular, and by the Regency period were highly decorated with coloured frostings, trimmings and sugar figurines.

Wassailing is another tradition that continued in the Georgian era. At parties, guests drank lightly spiced ale with honey from a large drinking bowl. This Wassail bowl was passed around the dinner table from person to person to drink to each other’s health. The flavour of the drink would have been similar to the mulled wine that many people enjoy at Christmas time today.

 

Victorian Christmas

Authors such as Charles Dickens sought to reform the “conscience of Christmas” and turn the formerly riotous holiday into a family-friendly occasion.  The custom of gift-giving at Christmas time resembles the Roman tradition of giving sigillaria and the lighting of Advent candles resembles the Roman tradition of lighting torches and wax tapers. Likewise, Saturnalia and Christmas both share associations with eating, drinking, singing, and dancing.

 

We don’t know whether spiced wine was usually drunk at Christmas, but we do know that poor people drank ale (a type of beer) and rich people had ale as well as expensive imported wines. Wine and ale were served in jugs on the table for guests to help themselves, and servants made sure the jugs were topped up. Ale was not very alcoholic and each person only drank a small amount of wine. 

In summary, the Christmas feast has evolved over centuries, drawing from ancient pagan celebrations, medieval traditions, and more recent cultural influences. The diversity of dishes and customs associated with the Christmas feast reflects the rich tapestry of human history and cultural exchange.

 

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