Folkmoor: Christmas Food Traditions

Mark Norman
Mark Norman

There’s no doubt that food plays a big part in our Christmas celebrations. But have you ever stopped to wonder what the origins of some of our popular Christmas foods are?

Casting the net wider than our usual local traditions, as a Yuletide treat here is a look at just a few of the items you may find on your table this year.

In the run up to Christmas, many people (both the young and the not-so-young) will be enjoying opening the doors in their advent calendar and
partaking of the small treat inside. This is an invention coming out of Germany, where we find the source of other Christmas traditional food. In the 19th Century there, the advent calendar was created as a way of heightening anticipation for the approaching festivities. The inclusion of sweets behind the doors was a way to engage children in the custom.

Gingerbread houses are another traditional Christmas treat to come out of Germany.  Gingerbread has been important for centuries, and also well loved. Shakespeare wrote of it in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “And I had but one penny in the world, thou shoulds’t have it to buy gingerbread”. The earliest gingerbread has ceremonial connections from both ancient Greece and Egypt. Later, it was introduced by crusaders into Europe in the 11th Century as trading along the spice routes from the Middle East started to grow. At this time, gingerbread paste would be pressed into wooden moulds which bore likenesses of kings, queens or religious symbols. The first gingerbread man, in fact, was credited to Queen Elizabeth I who presented some important visitors with biscuits baked in their own image.

Pieces of gingerbread would also be bound with ribbon and sold at fairs. Exchanging gingerbread was seen as a token of love. The gingerbread house became popular in Germany after the Grimms published ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in the 19th Century. Early German settlers took them to the Americas, but they never became as popular in Britain.

Staying in Germany and we find another traditional Christmas food in the form of Stollen. The item itself is mentioned first in documents recorded in the 15th Century, but much has changed in its make-up since that time.

The Stollen is said to be a representation of the baby Jesus in his swaddling clothes and hence it was sometimes referred to as Christollen. Many of the ingredients that made up a Stollen would have been too expensive to afford year-round. This is common with many foods associated with the Christmas period; they were eaten then as part of a celebration because they were luxury items and would not be seen again for another 12 months. Candy canes hanging on the tree would certainly fall into this category as historically sugar was such an expensive commodity.

Folklore tells us that the shape most commonly associated with the candy cane – that of a shepherd’s crook – came in fact not from the shepherd but from the church. It is said that the sweet canes were first made around the year 1670 by a German choirmaster as a way of keeping his choir quiet in church during long sermons. There is no evidence for this possibly apocryphal claim.

What we can say with more certainty is that the tradition of using them as a form of Christmas tree decoration can be traced back to 1847 and a
German immigrant by the name of August Imgard. Coloured stripes were added in the early 20th Century; not at first the red colour which we often associate with the canes but green – possibly to denote winter greenery.

Items which we enjoy in abundance now also find their roots from early expensive ingredients. The Christmas ham comes from the boar head which would often been found as an impressive feature of the Tudor table at Christmas. Going back to Tudor times does not find the point of origin however, as this in itself comes from much earlier traditions of honouring the Norse goddess Freyr in order to try and assure a good and bountiful harvest later in the year. Freyr had associations with the boar. In less well-to-do houses plain ham was used in place of the boar’s head and the meat is still in common use.

In the same way, the humble mince pie has a long history at Christmas. The mincemeat was originally a means of stretching out expensive meat for as long as possible and ensuring that there was no waste from the leftovers of the Christmas table. As time went on, the meat was gradually removed from the recipe until we end up with the fruit mix that is so familiar today. The mince pie may find its roots in Roman times and the tradition of presenting sweetmeats as gifts during Saturnalia. The mince pie has never been as popular in the United States as it is in the UK and the answer to why this is the case may be found in the fact that the Puritans pronounced them a Catholic custom.

Other traditional Christmas foods are a little more humble in their ingredients. Chestnuts are probably among the earliest foods eaten. Unlike other luxury items, the chestnut is of course found plentifully in the wild, where it was historically gathered as a means of sustenance. The connection with Christmas may be found in the symbolic gift of chestnuts which was presented to the poor of parishes at the Feast of St Martin, or Martinstag. Even today in Tuscany, nuns from the Benedictine order create a dessert made from chestnuts at Christmas.

Another food with less expensive ingredients is the plum pudding. The origins of this Christmas fare stem from the Roman Catholic Church who issued a decree to make a pudding containing 13 ingredients. These were to represent Christ and the apostles. The making of a Christmas pudding is traditionally quite a long process as the fruit needs to steep and ferment to give the flavour and richness.

On Stir Up Sunday, members of the family would take turns to stir the pudding mix. This was done from East to West to represent the journey taken by the Magi. The name plum pudding is something of a misnomer as the term plum once denoted any dried fruit. Some foods are less common in some parts of the world than others at Christmas. Italian Panettone is found on some tables and has a good folk tale attached to it to explain why it is there. In some stories, the product was created in the 1400s by a Duke’s falconer and his love Adalgisa, who was the daughter of a poor baker. The couple worked in secret at night devising the bread, which was so popular that it saved the ailing bakery from which it came. A plain bread for most of the year, citron and fruits were added at Christmas time. The baker became very wealthy which meant that the couple could then marry.

In some cultures, Christmas Eve is a more important time than Christmas Day itself, and the present giving and eating is done at this time. In Norway, a form of rice porridge is served at this time while the presents are exchanged. A person finding an almond in their serving will be offered a pink or white marzipan pig as a prize. We find similar traditions with the sixpence in the Christmas pudding, for example.

Christmas Eve dining in Poland has a number of customs associated with it. Here, an extra place is set at the table, said to be either for God or for a ‘lost wanderer’. The first element of the meal is the breaking of a wafer called an oplatek. This is shared by everyone around the table to demonstrate unity with Christ. In some houses 12 dishes are served, none of which should contain meat. Again, the number of dishes represents the apostles and the lack of meat signifies fasting. In order to ensure that the following year is a prosperous one, diners must have at least one bite from every dish.

In Italy, as in Poland, no meat is served on Christmas Eve. This is to help to purify the body. The number of dishes served here also has religious significance but may vary from house to house. These may number either 7 (to represent the sacraments), 9 for the Trinity squared, 12 for the apostles, 13 for the apostles plus Christ or a staggering 21 (for the sacraments multiplied by the Trinity). Italians have a tradition of leaving the table uncleared for a time after the meal, just in case the Madonna and Christ decide to visit.

Finally, we should consider the antipodean countries, for whom a white Christmas is highly unlikely. Why do we find traditional winter foods being eaten at Christmas here when it seems at odds with the rather hotter weather?

Traditions involving food are tremendously emotive. Rituals, a strong part of folklore, are important and this includes both the presentation and the consumption of food. These rituals give one a sense of belonging to their culture and, by extension, of being part of a global family. Research even suggests that food prepared and eaten through ritual is perceived as tasting better.

As a species, we human beings bond over shared practices, and the sharing of food is certainly one of the stronger examples of this.

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