Did you ever wonder what Christmas is all about? Not that we unaware of the birth of Jesus on 25th but, things like turkey, and what’s that got to do with Santa Claus etc. Well, Christmas is actually much older than its name implies. Before there was no room at the inn and the days of Angel Gabriel, there was a traditional midwinter celebration that dates back to times when we were dependent on the weather and influenced by changes in the climate to grow food. And don’t forget Winter Solstice – 22nd December – when the sun it at its furthest point from the earth. But the biggest influences on what we know today stems from the Romans and the ancient north Europeans.
Many of our traditional Yuletide foods were also customary centuries ago. The goose was already a popular winter food in the middle ages. Turkey appeared in the mid-16th century when it was imported from America and once they become popular, we started breeding them in Norfolk and Suffolk in huge flocks.
Also popular at that time, were huge pies containing duck, blackbirds, pigeons, capons, snipe and woodcock. The Abbot of Glastonbury decided to gain favour with King Henry VIII one winter and sent him a present of twelve manors in Somerset. He hid the deeds in a pie and entrusted a steward called Jack Horner to safely transfer the pie to London. ‘Little’ Jack Horner accidentally put his thumb in the pie, and, as legendary poetry describes – he pulled out a plum!
Cakes, nuts, marzipan, gingerbread and plum porridge were also savoured back then during winter and these ingredients, mixed with prunes, wine and spices were the forerunner to Christmas pudding.
Before they were associated with Christmas, mince pies date back to the Crusades, when England was first introduced to oriental spices, which were used to disguise the smell of some meats that were not quite as fresh as they could be. When the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, mince pies disappeared, but soon made a return a few years later when they contained orange and lemon peel and sugar. Over the years, the meat content disappeared and eventually replaced with suet.
Mulled wine, or ‘wassail’, which comes from the Saxon greeting ‘be well’ or ‘waes hael’, was made from heated ale, roast apples, eggs, sugar and spices, and was carried from house to house in a wooden bowl. It would then be warmed on the hearth and refilled when guests called. In the 18th century, wassail was replaced with punch, containing spirits and wine, which is still popular today.