For the medieval nobility, Christmas banqueting was an elaborate, 12-day affair. Yule dishes were rich and meaty, with beef, venison, goose and even roast swan enjoyed in great quantities. A terrific amount of stamina and a strong constitution were required.
Today, for better or worse, our festive feasting centres on one day. But many of our modern day favourites have origins in bygone eras. All will be revealed in the Penhaligon’s guide to the Christmas table.
A fowl for one’s feast
The Tudors had a penchant for roast venison at Christmas – but hold the offal! The heart, liver and other unmentionables were given to servants to make into ‘umble pie.
Rumour has it, Henry VIII was the first person to eat turkey on Christmas Day. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been the strangest dish on the King’s table. (Care for a grilled beaver’s tail?) In fact, it wasn’t until Victorian times that this American import became commonplace on British tables. Before then, a roast goose was the festive centrepiece of choice.
Up until the nineteenth century, one would have found actual minced beef inside one’s mince pie, alongside the spiced fruit. The austere Victorians soon put paid to that, considering it far to costly an indulgence, and the beef was replaced with suet.
From pottage to pudding
Christmas pudding evolved from a strange soupy concoction called pottage, to which dried fruit and old bread crumbs were added. This became the rich, boozy ‘pudding’ that we know today. (Goodness knows how.)
The popularity of the Christmas pudding owes much to Charles Dickens' wonderful depiction of the Cratchits' pudding ‘singing’ in its copper pot.
But why set fire to it, I hear you cry? This peculiar ritual most likely originates from the sixteenth century parlour game, Snap Dragon, in which daring diners would compete to pluck raisins from a flaming bowl of brandy. (Be advised: we couldn’t possibly encourage such a perilous activity.)
The final act: Christmas cake
In simpler Christmastimes of yore, dried fruit and nuts were considered a decadent and rare treat. And so the humble Christmas cake was much anticipated, laden as it was with fruit, spices and a dash of something a little stronger, if you were lucky.
Originally, this dense delicacy was served on Twelfth Night, to honour the three wise kings’ arrival in Bethlehem. In the 1650s, notorious spoilsport Oliver Cromwell banned it, along with all associated feasting. And so people resorted to consuming it on Christmas Day, when a little merriment was permitted.