Seasons eatings: The history of Christmas dinner

A turkey at the centre of a traditional Christmas dinner
Image: Shutterstock

It is believed that the forerunner of the Christmas dinner was the midwinter feast enjoyed by our ancient ancestors. Feasts were held to celebrate the pagan midwinter solstice, and archaeological digs have discovered that the most popular meats served up were pork and beef. Pork would be cooked over spits, while beef would be chopped up and used in hearty winter stews.

To accompany the feasts, seasonal fruits were consumed, such as crab apples and berries. The feasts of our ancestors were a lot different from the Christmas dinners we know and love today, but the basics - roast meat accompanied by a selection of trimmings - were already there many centuries ago.

When the Romans conquered Britain, they brought with them their own gods and their own festivals. The main winter celebration was the Saturnalia, held between the 17th and the 23rd of December to honour Saturn, the god of seeds and sowing.

The Saturnalia was unlike any other time of year in the Roman calendar. It was a time when everyone let their hair down - even slaves. Lavish feasts were held in Roman households where masters and their servants ate together, often with the masters serving food to their slaves.

Christmas started to look a little more familiar in the Middle Ages, and so did the Christmas dinner. For the monks and nuns of the many monastic orders scattered across the country, Christmas was a time of year where the strict rules that governed their lives were relaxed.

In the week leading up to Christmas, the monks and nuns were allowed to add spices to their food. Tables were laden with pies, minced meat dishes, roast meats and fish - much more than the usually austere members of the monastic orders ate throughout the year. They were also known to enjoy a tipple at Christmas, with records showing that many monasteries’ consumption of wine and ale ramped up considerably during the festive season.

The Christmas pudding first made an appearance in the medieval period, in the form of ‘frumenty’. Originally more like a soup than a pudding, frumenty was a combination of mutton and beef mixed with raisins and currants, spices and wine. It would evolve over the centuries to be the stodgy, fruity delight we know and love today. Just as with the mince pie, the savoury ingredients in a Christmas pudding would eventually be replaced entirely with sweet ones, adding to the gigantic calorie count many of us rack up at this time of year.

For the upper crust of medieval society, Christmas was not only a time for indulgence but also an opportunity to show off their vast wealth to their guests. Huge feasts were held to celebrate the season. The centrepieces of many a medieval table were roast boar heads, whole roasted peacocks with the feathers and plumes reattached, and enormous pies filled with the most sumptuous and expensive ingredients.

The poor were often given the scraps from the tables after these extravagant feasts were over. Others on the lower rungs of medieval life tried to do their best with the meagre resources they had. They added a little extra to the Christmas table, usually by increasing the amount of bread and pottage served up on the big day.

The turkey arrived in England in 1523, proving to be a popular - if expensive - addition to a festive menu that was already bursting at the seams with a cornucopia of roasted and stuffed meats. As well as gorging on boar and peacock as their medieval forebears had done, the Tudors also consumed pretty much anything that walked or squawked.

On the menu for the likes of Henry VIII and his court weren’t just traditional favourites, such as roast beef and venison, but also wild animals like blackbirds, badgers and swans. Alongside all that meat were accompaniments such as bread, pottage, frumenty and another seasonal favourite - the mince pie.

In Tudor times the mince pie wasn’t as it is today - it was enormous. Made to look like the crib of the infant Christ, the mince pie was filled to bursting with thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and his twelve apostles. The ingredients included various meats, prunes, dates, raisins and beef fat.

All of this would be washed down with gallons of warm spiced ale served in a communal ‘wassail bowl’. At the bottom of the bowl was a crust of bread that was presented to the host of the feast after the bowl was drained. This, some believe, is where the tradition of toasting the host comes from.

With turkey still the preserve of the rich, the humble goose became a staple of the Christmas table as the years rolled on. The Georgians in particular were very fond of goose, adding it to the Christmas menu alongside beef and venison, as well as less traditional Christmas fayre like cockles and mussels.

Mince pies also underwent a transformation during this period. The traditional meat filling of a mince pie was phased out in favour of spiced fruit, nuts and sugar. Sugar became more available during the Georgian era thanks to Britain’s plantation colonies in the West Indies, and the consumption of sugary treats, such as Christmas pudding and plum pudding, became commonplace.

It was also during the Georgian period that the most controversial of Christmas foods - the Brussels sprout - made its way to England. A hardy winter crop that grew well especially in eastern counties, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the sprout arrived towards the end of the 18th Century and quickly established itself as a yearly addition to the Christmas table. It has divided opinion ever since. Today, the sprout industry is worth a staggering £65 million a year, and the British eat more of these divisive little vegetables than any other nation in Europe.

More than anyone else, it is the Victorians we have to thank for what we now see as a traditional Christmas dinner. By the 19th Century, goose was the meat of choice for most households and Christmas itself had evolved from being an occasion for a large feast with hundreds of guests to a more intimate, family-oriented affair.

Vegetables such as roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots replaced multiple meats, though richer Victorians still mixed things up a bit with the addition of more expensive ingredients like asparagus and tomatoes. These were often grown in their own greenhouses out of season and presented at Christmas to impress visiting guests.

While goose remained popular throughout the Victorian era and into the Edwardian period, its days as the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner were numbered. Farming methods improved throughout the 19th Century, making turkeys easier and cheaper to rear and thus much less expensive to buy.

Families began to gather in large numbers on Christmas Day, and the sheer size of a turkey made it the ideal meat to feed many hungry mouths. The added bonus being that there were plenty of leftovers for Boxing Day and beyond. Now, around 10 million Christmas turkeys are consumed in the UK every year.

There have been modern interlopers such as nut roasts and other non-meat alternatives creeping in over the last few decades, as more and more people embrace vegetarianism and veganism. However, for most of us, turkey is what we’ll be wolfing down on Christmas Day, alongside a mountain of vegetables, pigs in blankets, various cakes and puddings, and, of course, oceans of booze.

From a pagan feast to celebrate the winter solstice, to a Tudor banquet consisting of every meat imaginable, to the traditional Victorian family meal which became the template for the festive meal we enjoy today, the Christmas dinner has changed a lot over the centuries.

One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that’s the age-old tradition of eating and drinking far too much. Merry Christmas!