History of the Christmas Dinner
So as December is upon us and we start planning our Christmas Dinner shopping list (unless you have booked a private chef to cater the event), there’s so much to think about; are sprouts in or out this year, what is the latest in thing to have on your dining table, what’s a vegan turkey? But have you ever stopped to think about why we have Christmas Dinner and how we came up with the current menu of turkey and sprouts. I don’t recall seeing Joseph sharing a turkey drumstick with one of the wise men and surely, if the shepherds were there, why isn’t it lamb for Christmas Dinner.
Well let’s leave it to an expert private chef to dig into the cooking archives and find out more….
Amazingly a Christmas or midwinter feast can be traced back before the birth of Jesus to the Neolithic age. At an archaeological dig at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge they found thousands of pig and cattle bones in rubbish piles around the homes. They could identify their age by their teeth and could see that they were nine months old which would marry with the timings of a midwinter feast. Stonehenge is built to align with the two solstice’s in the year so this would indicate a winter solstice feast on or around 21st December. No turkey bones were found!
The next significant evidence of Christmas like celebrations is in Roman time when we find the festival of Saturnalia which started on 17th December. It consisted of seven days of parties and public ceremonies. If private chefs were a thing then they would have been very busy, or maybe just a slave! The food varied due to the status of the household, so the finer the meal the more affluent they were. Sounds like an early version of Instagram.
As we now have the baby Jesus to celebrate, lets look to the monks to get us in the Christmas mood. They spend the whole year eating boring bland food, but in the lead up to Christmas they were literally allowed to spice things up with an additional daily allowance of spices. Maybe this is where the traditional cinnamon spiced smells we now associate with Christmas. In the 14th Century when monasteries were very affluent monks have been recorded eating up to 7000 calories a day. Beef and spiced meat pies were the order of the day here.
Moving on the Medieval Britain a Christmas dinner was given equal precedence to other feast days such as Easter and Whitsun. All these feasts whether rich or poor were bread based. A thick stew was made and then poured into a thick slice of hollowed out bread, called a trencher. If you were taking your feast up a notch or too you might see a boar’s head stuffed with bacon or even a roast peacock. We’re getting closer on our private chef turkey trail.
As we hit Tudor times we know we are in for a big feast! Traditional choices in this period were venison and wild boar but we start to see people eating birds and in 1523 turkeys were first introduced to England. A favourite Tudor feast was a Christmas Pie which was a pigeon inside a partridge, inside a chicken, inside a goose, inside a turkey, inside a pastry case called a coffin! Christmas food started to take on symbolic meaning with mince pies being made from 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and the Disciples.
As we move to Georgian times we see the wealthy having lavish dinner parties. Turkey has become very expensive so beef, mutton and venison are the order of the day. Poultry was served as a side dish and the wealthy would offer turkey as an option. A lot of the food was designed to be prepared in advance to allow the servants some time off. This is where the origin of Christmas cakes and puddings derives as this is before the time of fridges and freezers.
In Victorian times meat is still the order of the day on a Christmas day menu and goose and turkey are growing in popularity. A favourite was to stuff the turkey with chestnut and forcemeat. Queen Victoria is said to enjoy swan as her Christmas dinner. Vegetables finally start to make an appearance with potatoes, sprouts, cabbage and carrots being served. If you wanted to show how rich you were then serving unseasonal exotic vegetables was the way to go, such as asparagus, beans and tomatoes, demonstrating the expertise of your gardener.
Our Christmas dinner that we as a private chef service offer today is pretty much based on the offering from the 1930s there has been very little evolution of the meal in the last 100 years. Starters and alternative desserts started to make an appearance with the introduction of fridges and freezers. However, when you think about the move towards plant-based diets, maybe now is the period we will be writing about as a major change to the traditional Christmas Dinner.
Whatever you are doing for your Christmas Dinner whether you are preparing it yourself or using a private chef we wish you a very healthy and happy Christmas and New Year. We are offering an amazing choice of festive dining this year with a Festive Menu for Christmas parties, a Christmas Day menu and a New Year’s Eve feast. Take a look and maybe contact us to see if one our private chefs is available to cook in your home.