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A history of British Christmas food

Christmas turkey dinner. Baked turkey garnished with red berries and sage leaves in front of Christmas tree and burning candles

  • Dark Ages. The thing about the Dark Ages is that nobody really knows what went on during them. This was a time of great cultural and scientific advancement, but a lot of things were either never written about (and those which were have often been lost to turmoil and time). So, we can’t say for sure if anything was considered particularly ‘Christmassy’ to eat during this period.
  • What we do know is that people spent most of Advent putting food and treats aside for ‘Twelvetide’ (the Twelve Days of Christmas), so it’s pretty certain that they stuffed their faces as full as they could possibly manage come Christmas!

 

  • Middle Ages – Goose, woodcock and (if the monarch said you could) swan. If you were rich in the Middle Ages, you were in luck. Your Christmas feast was likely to be large enough to last you for days and days, and you were expected to eat yourself sick. Large birds were the festive meat of choice, particularly goose and woodcock. If you were close with the monarch then you could show off by getting their permission to roast a swan for your Christmas table (then, as now, swans were under the protection of the King or Queen). You would supplement your roasted birds with choice cuts of venison. In the South West and Wales, you’d have a stuffed ‘Yule Boar’s head as your table centrepiece, surrounded by candied fruits and other rich, sweet treats – including ‘Frumenty’, which was the earliest version of what we know today as ‘Christmas pudding’.
  • If you were poor, things were a bit different. You’d probably make do with whatever you’d saved up to eat over Advent. Tenants and workers for noble families might be invited to share a feast with their overlords. They may also be able to beg leftovers to supplement their own table, depending on the generosity of the local nobles. These they’d bake into a pie known as ‘Humble Pie’ (ring any bells?)

 

  • Elizabethan era – Sugar. The Elizabethan era was a time of travel and new discoveries. Through trading (and less salubrious practices) in far-flung corners of the globe, rich British households now found themselves with access to enormous quantities of sugar. And they made the most of it. Along with the traditional goose, woodcock, swan, and boar, Elizabethan households added a ‘sweetmeat course’ to their Christmas feasts. The tables would groan under the weight of sugary confections, from simple marchpane and gingerbread to marzipan chessboards (a favourite of Queen Elizabeth herself) and elaborate sculptures made from egg, sugar and gelatine.  Unsurprisingly, the dental trade had a boom during the Elizabethan era.
  • For poorer families, sugar would have been far too expensive. Humble Pie remained a Christmas staple for most working families in Britain at this time.

 

  • Georgian era – ‘Twelfth Cake’. It was during the Georgian era that turkey began to enter the roster of traditional Christmas dinner meats. Turkeys were in-keeping with the ‘large bird’ tradition and proved much easier to rear and prepare in large quantities than cantankerous geese. This made turkeys very popular with poultry farmers and butchers alike. By this point, commercial quantities of Christmas meats were needed, as enclosure of the countryside was turning farming into a business for a few landowners rather than something which everyone did in order to feed themselves and their families. Therefore, fewer people were able to raise their own bird for the Christmas table.
  • Twelfth Night had a moment in the limelight during the Georgian era. This was mostly due to something called ‘Twelfth Cake’, which was a lot like our modern Christmas cake with one exception: it contained a dried bean and a dried pea. Why? So that whoever found the dried bean in their slice of cake could become the ‘King’ of the house for the evening, and whoever found the pea could become the ‘Queen’. The household would have to do whatever they instructed until Twelfth Night was over. Traditionally, the King and Queen were supposed to use their powers in funny or mischievous ways. This tradition is still carried on today in some households – although slightly changed. Now, we hide a coin in the Christmas pudding rather than a bean and a pea in the cake.

 

  • Victorian era – Beef, goose and rabbit. The Victorian era saw high levels of poverty across the country. Many families could not afford turkey or goose for their dinner, and they hadn’t any land to raise their own birds upon. These families had rabbit for their Christmas dinner. Some would buy odds and ends from the butcher, mince them, and bake them into small, spiced pies. Similar to the older Humble Pie, these were called (for obvious reasons) ‘mince pies’. Those who could not afford meat used fruits, berries and preserves – leading eventually to the mince pie recipe we know and love today.

 

  • WW2 – ‘Mock turkey’. Turkey and goose were about neck and neck in the Christmas meats race as WW2 approached. But rationing changed all of that. Turkey was not available, so people made do with chicken, mutton, or rabbit. Those who raised geese were in luck, as they could eat or sell their birds, but chickens were more common as a domestic bird by this point. Some families made a bizarre (but delicious) creation known as a ‘mock turkey’. Sausage meat and stuffing would be moulded into the rough form of a turkey, held in shape by a ‘skin’ of bacon, and popped into the oven with ‘legs’ made of parsnips or carrots. Very stodgy by modern standards – but it had to be filling, as rationing prohibited a lot of the chocolate and other treats we enjoy today.

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