A guest blog from Barbara Lee Hesselgrave
It is the season! Plum puddings and Christmas cake, holly and mistletoe, candles and caroling, an abundance of red and green, the sparkle of silver and gold–our seasonal festivities are upon us once again. All this eating, buying and drinking; our brief but highly sanctioned non-stop pursuit of indulgence that unfortunately most of us pay for with hard to button clothes about the middle of January. But oh my goodness, isn’t it worth it!
Curiously, when taking a closer look at our long honored traditions we find many of them have roots in other cultures and countries.
A cornucopia of code
Nearly everyone can sing along to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but if you really think about it, what a zany ensemble of recommended gifts! Drummers, leaping lords, maids a milking, dancing ladies and certainly a lot of birds–turtledoves, swans, geese, french hens and of course the partridge–and then those five gold rings.
How on earth did this enter popular culture as a holiday mainstay? Well, the origin is thought to be French, being created as a spoken rhyme or poem and being first published in England in 1780. Yet the splendor of the many gifts, as described numerically, was intended to denote a more serious and subliminal religious message.
Take the swans a swimming for example. These birds are intended as a hidden code for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit including prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.
Then there are those leaping lords, and you guessed it. Here we have the folks who would control and manage law in England, and this was code for the Ten Commandments. The five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, and the single partridge was chosen as the representation of Christ, as it is the only bird known to die to protect its young.
Each verse has its religious intent, and is a cornucopia of secret messages, but it’s all a bit of a kill-joy. In fact, imparting joyfulness might be exactly what English composer Frederic Austin was aiming for in 1909, when he wrote the exuberant melody we so enjoy today.
At one time, the 12 days of Christmas actually began on Christmas day, but today they include the six days before and six days after the 25th of December, with St Stephen’s Day / Boxing Day in between. This was also the accepted window of time to put up and decorate your Christmas tree, do a round of entertaining, feasting and gift giving and making decorations for the home. . The last evening, officially dubbed “Twelfth Night,” is the eve of the Epiphany signaling the final opportunity for merrymaking and holiday festivities. The next day, the fun was technically over.
Yet, for many years prior to Queen Victoria, decorations were left up until Michaelmas, February 2. However, Victoria began the custom of packing it all in by the end of the 12 days; leaving your tree up longer was considered bad luck.
Today, our endless frustrations with strings of electric Christmas light were another origin of Victoriana. It was Prince Albert who imported the then- Hanoverian tradition of fir- tree- and- candles ritual to Victoria’s festivities, one that has endured ever since.
But many of our delightful Christmas traditions were at one time against the law.
Unbelievably, in 1647 Cromwell’s Parliament and his Puritan minded cronies quashed the holiday claiming the Christmas season was simply an excuse for every form of debauchery, gluttony, indulgence, and a litany of undesirable behaviors on which they frowned upon heavily. Generally ignoring the law folks caught making pies and decorations were subject to fines. Still, despite repeatedly- issued proclamations intending to kill off Christmas, most enforcements were met with town rioting and public defiance.
But in a twist of rebellious fate the unpopular policy only renewed public attention to Father Christmas, who depicted as a bearded man wronged by the government must defend himself claiming his wish was only to bring “good cheer” to people. In effect, he becomes the era’s poster version of the sympathetic Christmas supporter. Eagerly embraced by the public his message went down so well the intent of good cheer by kindly Father Christmas lives on today.
Good ‘cheer’ and tasty treasures
Then there is our tradition of carol singing. A pursuit of great popularity in the Middle Ages was further enhanced by wassailing– that door-to-door drinking tradition we associate with a parade of comedic characters staggering down the lane bringing their “good cheer” to neighbors. The hard cider they used would reportedly scare off bad spirits and wake up the apple trees in time for harvest time.
Other tasty Christmas beverages from days gone by include the Victorian Smoking Bishop. This consisted of hot port, red wine, cloves and oranges, or what about -the Shetland Isles delight called a Whipcoll–a brandy and egg mixture; perhaps a predecessor of our egg nog? Then, the enticing Yorkshire specialty of ale, apples, sugar and cream called Lamb’s Wool would be a welcome cup.
But the highlight of the season unequivocally, is truly The Food.
From the most lavish to most modest, every household went all out for the Christmas season. As early as two months before the holiday, the making of brandy soaked cakes and puddings were off with a bang, replete with nuts, flour, eggs, sugar, spices, assorted fruits such as raisins and apple, plus minced beef or suet, and de rigor was adding the “wineglass full of port and brandy” (glass size not specified!).
After boiling for hours until set, they were cooled and wrapped then aged by “feeding” –the adding of more brandy– every so often. Finally, set alight and garnished with holly leaves, and brought to table, the dark pudding alight with dancing blue flames it was, and still is, the glorious end to a fine holiday dinner!
Today however, we take all those ingredients for granted, nuts were to be had as easily as apples, but the critically important currants, raisins, and sultanas, (Turkish raisins), were unavailable and had to be imported.
These tasty dried fruits first came to our pantry by Knights returning from the Crusades in the 11th century. Introducing the unique delicacies they had sampled in Persia and the Mediterranean to the locals, quickly becoming a staple of English cuisine. During the Tudor Age prices escalated up to two pence and three farthings per pound, a staggering price at the time.
For spices we can thank The Dutch East India company and the English East India Companies who in 1600 began bringing back the fragrant and flavor enhancing Indian, Indonesian and Asian spices. Valuable and costly, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper and cumin were meal enhancing tastes to obtain at all costs.
The good news thanks to expeditions paid for by the Crown, was that sugar prices were going down!
Finally, in the Georgian period, the excesses of the Tudor era dies back to three important days: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night for the final end- of -season event.
The centerpiece of meat served on Christmas Day might be a roast goose, or roast beef, and on the country table, venison roast was popular. For the poorer folks, a rabbit might be the only dish on offer. The sides were typically root vegetables, and local cheeses.
The anxiety of every chef and holiday party planner having to plan and shop early before “everything runs out” is not new; this dilemma existed centuries ago. Then as now, there was a run on vendors for supplies but you could count on your pre-Christmas “Meat Show” to stock up. Literally a butchers festival in every district, they showcased their best of the best making it a perfect opportunity to provision your larder right before Christmas for your requisite fresh roast or joint for the holiday meal.
The dinner that walked for days
Today, roast Christmas turkey is popular fare; crispy and golden brown, stuffed with any and all arrangement of vegetables, nuts, oysters or fruit, a mouth-watering delight to every guest.
But unlike the Americas, turkeys are not indigenous to this island and were only introduced in the early 1500’s via Mexican imports. Like any poultry turkeys are a challenging fragile bird subject to influences of rain, damp and cold. Norfolk became the popular spot in England for raising turkeys and their explicit care was detailed by farmer William Cobbet who in 1847 writes:
“To raise turkeys in this chilly climate is a matter of much greater difficulty than in the climates that give great warmth; and so is this, that in America, where there is always a ‘wet spell’ in April, the farmers’ wives take care never to have a brood come until that spell is passed. In England, where the wet spells come hap-hazard, the first thing is to take care that young turkeys never go out, on any account (except in dry weather), until the dew be quite off the ground; and this should be adhered to till they get to be the size of an old partridge, and have their backs well covered with feathers; and in wet weather they should be kept under cover all day long.”
Known for a cantankerous personality and resistant to tying up like cattle or sheep their sojourn to the center of trade, London’s Leadenhall Market could be done only one way.
They had to walk.
Walking hundreds of turkeys (slowly to conserve weight!) from Norfolk to London, an incredible 100 miles south, must have been a sight to behold. More astonishing was the practice of dipping their feet in tar, or outfitting them with leather booties to protect their tender feet. What a nerve-wracking endeavor for all!
Which probably explains why that holiday bird cost so much.
The cheaper and easily obtained goose for your festive mid-1800’s table was often chosen over turkeys: “…as compared to diamonds in as much as their value increases in a geometrical ratio with their weight. A nine pound bird being purchasable at about seven shillings.”
Finally, the cherished legacy of hanging up stockings at the chimney also nods to the distant past. Legend has it that in 270 AD Turkish-born St Nicholas secretly threw a bag of gold coins through a window to help a man too poor to offer the dowry needed for his three daughters which landed in a stocking hung by the fireplace to dry.
Our holiday meals and traditions may continue to evolve through the ages to come, but one thing is fairly certain. We all look forward to that time when the year draws to a close and we gather with friends and family to enjoy special food, drink, and gift giving. Lavish or simple, the holidays allow us time to reflect individually or together, on all that is in the past and plan with anticipation, the future year to come.
May you and yours have a safe, delicious and exceptional holiday season!
Barbara Lee Hesselgrave