Alexandra Wingate: How traditions of Christmas sprouted

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A traditional Christmas dinner is one of the highlights of the festive season, but how did it evolve? Alexandra Wingate explains

Nothing beats a good Christmas dinner. And nothing says Christmas quite like a roast turkey with all the trimmings.

The traditional Christmas dinner has come to define the whole holiday season. It’s a time when we go to town on our food, making it as filling and extravagant as possible in celebration of the whole family coming together.

But did you know that the now popular warm mince pie is actually illegal – thanks to Oliver Cromwell, who enacted a law that to this day has not been repealed. And have you ever wondered how you could prepare a delicious, filling meal with only four ounces of meat, two ounces of butter and one wartime rationed egg?

As the centuries have passed, so have our traditions and aspirations. So, what exactly were our ancestors eating, and how have we ended up with the meal we have today?

THE MIDDLE AGES: 1111

Although temporarily banned by the Catholic Church, Christmas during the Middle Ages was a time of excess, with great feasts and general indulgence by rich and poor alike.

Mince pies were first introduced when returning European crusaders brought Middle Eastern recipes containing meats, fruits and spices and baked them in a rectangular case to represent Jesus’ crib. These were eaten on each of the 12 days of Christmas in the hope of bringing good luck. Goose was the most popular choice for Christmas dinner, and the richest homes might even have had venison. The best cuts were reserved for the wealthy, with any offcuts given to the poor in true Christmas spirit. This offal was known as “umbles”, and would be turned into a pie mixed with oats and vegetables to bulk it out – so the poor would be eating “umble pie”, the origin of the expression “to eat humble pie”.

THE STEWARTS: 1511

In the years before the Reformation, Christmas was celebrated by all strands of Scottish society, but in very different ways. A Christmas pie was a meat eater’s dream, with a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all covered in a pastry case morbidly called a coffin. And if that wasn’t enough, there was plenty of jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl to satisfy any unfilled bellies, all washed down with a punch made of hot ale, sugar, spices and apples.

But all this meat was a privilege reserved for the wealthy. “Most people at that time were vegetarians because they couldn’t afford meat. It would have been quite a surprise for anyone to be eating any kind of meat, even at Christmas,” says John Burnett, principal curator of Scottish ethnology at the National Museum of Scotland. Instead, people did the best with the food they had, usually based on oatmeal, which formed the basis of meals such as oatcakes, bannock, skirlie and sowans.

YULE: 1711

The Reformation brought a total ban on Christmas, with customers who asked bakers or butchers for festive foods reported to the authorities. But while the rest of Scotland carried on like any other day, members of the Episcopal Church continued to celebrate Yule, a festival similar to Christmas. Rabbits, hares and goose replaced the boar’s head common in England because of its spiritual significance to the Druids. Larks’ tongues and game pies were a particular delicacy among the rich, while those who lived near the sea would eat smoked haddock. Brose – a kind of porridge made with the fat of a slaughtered ewe – was eaten by everyone, no matter how rich or poor. Its preparation, which involved being mixed in a large bowl with a married woman’s wedding ring, was believed to bring the ring’s unmarried finder a spouse over the coming year. Sweet oatcakes known as bannocks and brunies were scored with the sign of the cross, with one made for every person who lived in the house. Wines such as sherry and claret were popular among the higher classes, while others drank beer, cider and ale.

THE VICTORIANS: 1861

It was the Victorians who really turned Christmas into what we know today. Turkey was more expensive than goose, but became increasingly popular among richer families after it was chosen as the focal point of the royal family’s table. Roast goose was the main meat for most families, along with a side of vegetables such as sprouts, all topped off with stuffing and apple sauce.

Mulled wine grew in popularity in the 19th century and as it was drunk during the cold winter months it became associated with Christmas. For dessert there was Christmas pudding as well as syllabub, with plenty of expensive sugar making it a special luxury. Adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at theatres in Edinburgh saw people becoming more nostalgic and sentimental about the festival. Poorer families saved a few pence every week over the year with “goose clubs” at local pubs or markets, with the goose cooked at the baker’s shop if they did not have their own oven.

“There was a big emphasis on meat in Christmas celebrations because meat was an expensive luxury and it reinforced the idea of a ‘feast’,” explains Dr Stana Nenadic, senior lecturer in social history at Edinburgh University. “In Scotland it was common to see game birds, and particularly goose, served at Christmas for rich and poor alike.”

SECOND WORLD WAR: 1941

Although Christmas was still not a national holiday, with people working and shopping as they would on any other day, the Second World War saw the festival having much more significance across Scotland. This was because of the influx of soldiers coming from allied countries, bringing with them their festival traditions.

However, rationingmeant that families had to make do with what they had and carefully save up their coupons and supplies as the festival approached.

Turkey was almost unheard of, and instead meat would sometimes come from chickens or rabbits kept in the garden. This was part of “digging for victory”, with families relying on home-grown produce such as vegetables to top up their limited rations. Although middle-class homes did their best to carry on preparing the kind of Christmas meal we would recognise today, most families ate ordinary food, such as stew, and drank wine or beer. Often they would have a special dessert to compensate – maybe a home-made steam pudding or a currant tart.

* Additional reporting by Stuart Findlay