Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Feast

In Regency England, December 24th marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Evergreens were gathered and brought into the home. The evening began with the ceremonial lighting of the Yule log/Christmas fire. Neighbors and family dropped by and there was music, dancing and games, followed by a large dinner. On Christmas Day, the family went to church, then returned home to open gifts and share a quieter, more intimate day.

Boar’s Head/Brawn
Wild boar was the most feared animal in the forest throughout most of European history. Its presence at a meal represented the victory of good over evil. For Christians, the boar’s head came symbolized the triumph of Christ over Satan.

In many mythologies, the wild boar was associated with darkness and the underworld. Lyre and boar symbols represented light and dark, life and death in Roman as well as Celtic cultures. The slaughtering of a boar and roasting its head was a tradition in several cultures. At midwinter, Vikings sacrificed a wild boar to Freyr, their fertility god, imploring his favor in the new year.

During the Middle Ages, wild boar—also known as brawn—crowned the Christmas feast. The 15th century Boar’s Head Carol describes the ritual of carrying it into the hall on a platter of gold or silver to the accompaniment of trumpets:
The boar's head in hands I bring
with garlands gay and birds si
I pray you all, help me to sing
all who are at this banquet!

The boar's head I understand
is chief service in this land.
Wheresoever it is found,
It is served with mustard!

The boar's head I dare well say

anon after the twelfth day,
he takes his leave and go
es away,
He went out from his native country.

Wild boar became extinct in Britain during the 17th century and the head of a pig was substituted. During the Regency, brawn was a favorite Christmas treat. By then, however, it had degenerated into a dish we know as head cheese, which is not cheese at all but a spiced meat jelly. Today’s holiday ham is thought to derive from the boar’s head tradition.

Christmas Goose
Birds were popular meat courses during the Middle Ages. Peacock and swan were particularly prized. The skin and feathers were carefully stripped off before the bird was roasted, then sewn back on. Pages carried the dish into the dining hall with pomp and circumstance.

In 1251, Henry VIII’s Christmas banquet required 125 mute swans. So popular was this gastronomical delight, only noblemen were allowed to own swans and then only by royal decree. If convicted of illegal possession or killing a swan, a person was sentenced to seven years hard labor or transported.

When the goose became popular as a holiday dish is not clear, especially when most cultures considered them sacred. A flock of temple geese is said to have alerted the Romans to a stealth attack by Gauls in the 4th century. The Celts associated geese with their god of war. In Central and Eastern Europe, geese have been found buried in the graves of Iron Age warriors. Julius Caesar once observed that Britons didn’t eat goose because of the bird’s association with the life-giving Sun Egg. (In the Egyptian creation myth, the sun was an egg laid daily by their creator god who took the form of a goose) To kill a goose at mid-winter was believed to risk plunging the world into perpetual darkness. During the Middle Ages, geese were thought to harbor the unbaptized souls of babies.

By the 14th century, however, goose was a common holiday dish. Elizabeth I was eating goose on Michaelmas in 1558 when she learned the Spanish Armada had been defeated.

Henry VIII introduced the New World turkey as a holiday dish, but it wasn’t until the Edwardian period that it became fashionable at Christmas. For most of the 19th century, therefore, goose graced the table.

Fruit Cake
Egyptians considered fruit cake essential in the afterlife. Romans made them with raisins, pomegranate seeds and nuts mixed into a barley mash and formed in a ring. Because these heavy cakes preserved well, their soldiers carried them on military campaigns. During the Middle Ages, Crusaders packed fruit cakes in their saddlebags when they traveled to the Holy Land.

Brits began their love affair with the fruit cake during the 15th century. These “sinfully rich” confections consisting of nuts, spices, and candied and dried fruit soaked in spirits Considered a decadent dish, consumption of fruit cake was severely regulated during the 18h century, confining them to special occasions like weddings and Christmas. (Queen Victoria is said to have forced herself to wait a whole year to eat the fruit cake she once received for her birthday.) In the same way pieces of the Yule log and Yule candle were set aside for the following Christmas, it was considered good luck to save a portion of the holiday fruit cake.

Celebrated by Herrick in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this mixture of hot ale, eggs, sugar, spices and roasted apples was drunk to the health of family and friends.
The wassail bowl is said to derive from the grace cup Romans passed from person to person at state banquets and other feasts. (The concept of “saying grace” before a meal comes from this practice.) The Greeks also pledged their friends’ health from a common chalice which we refer to today as a loving cup.

The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting waes hael, which meant “be well.” At the start of the new year, the chieftain would raise his cup and shout waes hael to all assembled and they waes hael’d him back. Gradually, the tradition changed to people moving from house to house carrying a wassail bowl made of turned ash or maple and decorated with ribbons.

In the cider producing areas of Britain, the apple orchards were wassailed. Folks gathered around the oldest fruit tree and toasted a bountiful harvest in the new year. Ale, mulled wine and food scraps from the Christmas meal were poured and tossed onto the tree roots. Guns were shot off through the branches to drive away evil spirits.

Another Egyptian confection which became prized by Roman emperors was marzipan. Know in Britain as marchpane, this sugar and almond paste concoction was introduced into Europe during the 13th century and became popular because it was easily sculpted and molded into fanciful shapes. During Elizabeth I’s reign, a showpiece made of marchpane was presented at the end of each meal.
By the Regency period, marzipan was a popular treat for special occasions. In 1817, the Prince Regent invited Napoleon’s former cook— Marie-Antoine Carême— to prepare a dinner in honor of the Czar of Russia. The famous chef’s pièce de résistance was a four foot Turkish mosque constructed of marzipan.

Mince Meat Pie
Meat pies have long been a staple of the British people. Until the mid-17th century, mince meat pies were known as Christmas pies. Rectangular or “coffin” shaped to represent the Christ Child’s manger, they consisted of minced or chopped meat, dried fruit, spices, sugar, and (in the 18th century) brandy. Eating a mince pie every day from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night was said to bring twelve months of happiness in the new year. And, like plum pudding, everyone in the household was required to stir the mince meat during preparation, making a secret wish as they did so.

Plum Pudding
The last Sunday in November (1st Sunday in Advent) is known as Stir Up Sunday. The name is taken from the church service and only secondarily associated with stirring of the plum pudding. According to the Anglican collect (prayer) of the day:

Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Stir Up Sunday is the day preparations for Christmas began in earnest.

Plums and prunes were popular pie fillings during the Middle Ages. Plum porridge—the precursor of plum pudding—was served as the first course of Christmas dinner. It consisted of boiled beef or mutton with broth thickened with brown bread and raisins, currants, prunes, cloves, mace and ginger. By the 17th century, however, plums and prunes had been dropped from the recipe. Nevertheless, the dish continued to be referred to as plum pudding.

When preparing plum pudding, every person in the household had to take a turn stirring the mixture three times in a clockwise (sunwise) motion. While they did so, they made a secret wish. Even babies had to stir, helped in the task by their mothers. The pudding was steamed in a cloth bag, then hung up to age until Christmas Day.

Before steaming, charms were added to the batter. A coin meant wealth in the new year; a horseshoe for good luck; a shoe foretold travel; a ring meant marriage in the new year. A portion of the pudding was saved for New Years to assure good luck.

Stirring plum pudding in a “sunwise” direction is thought to be a ritual derived from the Celts. According to Celtic mythology, the harvest god Dagda possessed a magical cauldron capable of supplying unlimited food. When Dagda saw the sun falling lower in the winter sky, he built a great fire and threw into his cauldron all the delicious meat and fruits of the earth. Slowly he cooked it until, at Yuletide, his plum pudding was ready.

Cromwell outlawed this pagan dish, along with mince meat pies, as “unfit for god-fearing people” in 1664. Although George I reinstated them both as Christmas traditions in 1714, Parliament never officially repealed Cromwell’s ban. It remains technically illegal to consume mince meat pies and plum pudding in Britain.

1 comment:

Molly Sypder said...

Wonderful , enjoyable article about Christmas traditions and goods. Thank you so much.