Christmas, more than any other holiday, is when we endeavor to recreate the feasts of our childhood. For some this means a rich Victorian feast, for others, the incomparable flavor of Grandma’s apple pie or Uncle Joe’s sweet potato casserole generously sprinkled with marshmallows and walnuts.
There are some foods that we only serve during the holidays. I ask you, who eats plum pudding on their regular midweek meatloaf and mashed potatoes night?
So where did it all begin? Why do we so closely associate feasting with Christmas?
Roman Festival of Saturnalia
According to some historians, the Latin Church selected December 25th for the Nativity as the Christian counterpart to the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. Saturnus being the god of sowing and seed corn and the Mithraic Natalis Solis Invicti in honor of the birth of the sun. Saturnalia involved feasting as celebration of the abundance after the harvest, which, in Rome, occurred in December (Saturnalia concluded on December 23rd).
Since the season of the winter solstice was a time of celebration for many ancient religions, and a time of sacrifice to invoke the gods to provide a prosperous year, the Christmas Festival has been embellished with many ancient seasonal customs.
Let’s look at Christmas feasting at some of our “neighbor’s” houses.
Christmas Feasting in Europe
In France, the Christmas Eve feast, or reveillon, begins after midnight Mass and often extends until dawn. The feast has many courses ranging from salads, fruits, soups, meats, chicken, fish, breads, cheese, nuts, candy, pastry, and of course, plenty of wine.
It is said that the tradition of serving boar’s head at the Christmas feast originated because the German god Frey, who was responsible for the well-being of livestock, was symbolized by the boar. Therefore boar was often sacrificed in hopes of a prosperous spring herd. Eventually, the boar’s head part of the custom as a part of the party became pretty impractical. Boars were increasingly hard to find and dangerous to catch. It also took a week of cooling and preparation to make the boar presentable. In more modern times, the boar was replaced by pork, roast beef, turkey, and goose.
In England, Christmas feasting has gone in and out of fashion depending on who sat on the throne. The beginning of Christmas extravagance occurred in the 13th century when Henry III had six hundred oxen killed and prepared for a single feast. In 1248, he established the custom of giving food to the needy for the holiday. In 1377, Richard II, not to be outdone by Henry II, held a Christmas feast for over ten thousand people.
Protestants & Puritans
In 1517, with the posting of Luther’s ninety-five theses, the Reformation attacked religious feasts as corrupt practices. The Protestants and Puritans condemned the gluttony, drinking, and partying associated with the season. In 1644, an English proclamation called for the usual fast on the last Wednesday of the month to be observed even though it fell on Christmas Day. By the middle of the 17th century, the government issued official policies outlawing all religious festivals.
When Charles II returned to power in 1660, people were again free to observe Christmas. However, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that Christmas would reach its pinnacle of popularity.
Queen Victoria Christmas Feasts
Meanwhile, though England battled over the legitimacy of Christmas, the Germans continued their tradition of sumptuous feasting complete with gingerbread houses and cookies (minus, of course, the boar’s head of earlier days). When Queen Victoria married the German-born Prince Albert, many of the wonderful Christmas traditions of his homeland were brought to England.
Since Victoria and her family were wildly popular, much of what they did was emulated in homes throughout England.
The Victorian Christmas menu is probably the one most people on both sides of the pond imagine when thinking of the classic Christmas dinner. The Royals feasted on turkey, goose, or roast beef, mince pie, Yorkshire and plum pudding, wassail, and eggnog.
Christmas Feast around the world
In Wales, taffy is the candy of the day.
In Ireland, three special puddings are made for the holiday season: one for Christmas, one for New Year’s, and one for Twelfth Night.
In Austria, the feast includes carp, ham, goose, and pastry.
In Holland, boiled chestnuts are among the popular snacks.
The Danish Christmas feast is composed of roast goose, red cabbage, potatoes, and pastry. One custom, common to other Scandinavian countries as well, involves hiding an almond in the rice pudding. Whichever child has the portion with the almond gets a prize.
In Sweden, the Christmas season starts with St. Lucia’s Day. St. Lucia, martyred in A.D. 304 for being a Christian, brought food to Sweden during a time of famine. On December 13th, thousands of young girls in white robes, acting the part of St. Lucia, serve pastry and coffee to their parents in bed. Special buns marked with an “X” to symbolize Christ are served. On Christmas Eve day, the Swedish practice the ritual of doppa i gryten (dipping in the kettle). A kettle is filled with corned beef, pork, and sausage drippings and each person dips a piece of dark bread in the kettle and eats it. This ritual serves to remind each family member of the less fortunate and encourages thankfulness.
In Greece, the Christmas meal features Christopsomo, or Christ Bread. The bread is usually decorated with a symbol of the family’s occupation. Traditionally, the first piece is given to a beggar. A second Christopsomo is usually baked for the animals in hopes of a prosperous year. Pork and chicken are also served at the family table.
In Poland, the Christmas Eve meal has thirteen courses — one for Christ and one for each of the Apostles.
In the Czech Republic, Christmas dinner consists of carp, pudding, and fruit stew.
In Central and South America and the West Indies, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are celebrated with picnics and bullfights.
In the African nations, lucky children receive sugar, grains, and fruit. After a church service on Christmas Day, the Christmas feast is eaten outside. Non-European sections have feast, carnivals, and parades. In Armenia, the week before Christmas is one of fasting, during which no meat, eggs, cheese, or milk may be eaten.
In Iraq, Christmas is known as the Little Feast. Easter being the Great Feast. Christians fast from December 1st until Christmas Eve, consuming no meat, eggs, cheese, or milk. After the Christmas Eve service, a great feast begins.
Feasting in Amreica
In America, the “Great Melting Pot,” Christmas is a magnificent blend of many customs and cuisine. We drool over Swedish-born Hot Cross buns and our own version of dipped bread, namely, stuffing. We still roast pork, ham, beef, or turkey, and in some homes, goose graces the platter. Mince pie is certainly a staple, though without the traditional meat additives. Eggnog and roasted chestnuts? Of course! And possibly, in some home in America, someone has managed to find a boar and done him up right.