The Ghost of Christmas Past

When we talk about traditional Christmas, images of turkey, mince pies, presents and Christmas crackers often come to mind. However, this has not always been, and may not always be the case. Over the course of 3 blog posts, we look at the Christmases of the past, present and the potential future to look at how this festive period has evolved and may continue to evolve.

Fundamentally, Christmas dinners are a bit weird. It’s the only time of year in which the usual roasts of beef, pork and chicken are eschewed to pave the way for Turkey to rise as the prominent star. This has not always been the case as traditionally the meat component was actually goose due to beef and chicken being wasteful (why kill your cow that produces milk the whole year round? or why kill your chicken that was still laying on an almost daily basis?). With geese, their egg laying is on a seasonal basis, and so it made sense to fatten up your goose and when it had stopped laying you gave it the chop. For the more affluent families, wild boar and even peacocks were pride of place in this meal.

So, when did the humble turkey arrive on our plates? Turkeys started becoming part of the British diet in the 1500s thus somewhat validating the legend that Henry VIII was the first Briton to eat turkey on Christmas day[i] (iNews, 2020). However, this exclusive bird did not become commonplace until the Victorian era. This can be seen in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ which shows Scrooge sending Bob Cratchit a large turkey to replace his goose. Whilst still quite expensive at this point in history, the large size of the turkey led to more families using this bird as a centerpiece for when they were entertaining guests. Nowadays the turkey still dominates our Christmas diet with 76% of UK households devouring this bird on Christmas day[ii] (iNews, 2020).

Mince pies are again something that only dominates our shops, cake tins and stomachs around Christmas time, and they also have a rich history. The origins of the humble mince pie lie in the Crusades of the 1300s in which spices from the Eastern world were incorporated into a variety of dishes. Traditionally, a key component of mince pies was actually meat. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the current iteration of this product came to fruition with a movement towards replacing the meat with the spiced fruits we know and love today.

Finally, another seasonal oddity takes the form of Christmas crackers, which were invented by Tom Smith in 1847. Originally, they were used as sweet wrappers, and when sales began to fall Smith started adding little love messages or riddles inside them. Legend has it that one day, while he was sat by the fire, Smith became obsessed by its sparks and crackling noises, and wanted to incorporate these into his crackers. Due to the addition of the ‘cracking mechanism,’ the size of the paper wrapper had to increase, and so sweets were soon replaced by various trinkets and toys, and so the modern version of the Christmas cracker was born!

This Christmas I suspect we will still see many of the familiar festivities that we have grown to expect, but there may be some additions that, in time might even become part of our Christmas traditions.

By: Greg Barber

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