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Article: The Origin of Christmas Dinner Favourites

The Origin of Christmas Dinner Favourites

Have you ever wondered why roast turkey is such a popular meat at Christmas? Why ham is so often the centrepiece of the Christmas dining table? Why the pavlova is such a favourite that it has Australia and New Zealand fighting over its lineage? Or why Christmas pudding continues to hold its own, despite baffling resistance from the Millennials and onwards?

With the festive season approaching, we decided to uncover the origins of these very popular Christmas dishes. (And there are plenty more – stay tuned for next year’s blog!)

As it turned out, we were in for some big surprises, such as Henry VIII being an influencer in the turkey feasting stakes … and the Christmas pudding, in one form or another, dating back to medieval times! Ready for some fascinating insights? Then, read on!

where did christmas dinner traditions come from?

Roast Turkey

In many countries, including our own, roast turkey continues to hold pride of place in the Christmas feast. Traditionally served with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and sumptuous roast vegetables, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it (or at least, so say us!) And it’s a great origin story – as you can see by the space we’ve dedicated to it below!

The Origin Story

The turkey, which is native to Central America, was first domesticated somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. Once the birds were introduced into the farming system, they spread rapidly to other grounds, such that when Columbus arrived in 1492, they were already being enjoyed in North America and the Caribbean.

The story then goes that East Yorkshire landowner William Strickland introduced the turkey into England in the 1520s. A captain on Sebastien Cabot’s discovery voyages to the Americas, Strickland had apparently acquired six turkeys by trading with Native Americans during an early voyage to America.

What he traded in return remains unknown, but it seems that the deal was a bit of a windfall for Strickland who went on to make a fortune in the turkey trade, purchasing several grand estates in Yorkshire in the process. And the humble beginnings of this venture? He sold the six birds at the Bristol market for tuppence each!

While there’s some doubt about this origin story, Strickland himself certainly claimed authority. He adopted the turkey as the family crest in 1550, and his coat-of-arms, held at London’s College of Arms, is said to be the first depiction of the bird in Europe. And what’s more – elevating the turkey to a position of reverence! – the village church in Boynton where Strickland is buried is graced throughout with images of the bird! There are stone sculptures on the walls, stained-glass windows and even a turkey carving on the wooden lectern!

Celebrating the Turkey: William Strickland’s Coat of Arms

Celebrating the Turkey: William Strickland’s Coat of Arms

Credit: Austen Authors

As for its festive significance, it’s said that Henry VIII was the first person to eat turkey on Christmas Day. It took a while, however, for the meat to gain prominence as the dish of choice, with beef, goose or rabbit traditionally being served (in England, at least). Then, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria started eating turkey, creating a hugely popular trend among the middle classes. And, as turkey became cheaper, it gained popularity with the working classes, continuing the trend into the 20th century and beyond.

As for roasting the meat, this used to mean cooking in front of an open fire or on or under a fire grate. With the advent of closed ranges and roasting ovens in the 20th century, this all changed and the modern concept of roasting began!

Henry VIII Enjoying a Turkey Leg

Henry VIII Enjoying a Turkey Leg

Credit: Tumblr

Accompaniments and Trimmings

Even in the height of an Australian Summer, many wouldn’t consider a Christmas roast complete without a line-up of traditional vegetables. As with the turkey, we’ve followed the UK, adopting staples such as carrots, parsnips, red onions and potatoes. Interestingly, these root vegetables, although generally available all year round, are in season in Winter and so don’t quite conform with the ‘eating food in season’ field of thought!

Brussels sprouts, however, an iconic Christmas side-dish in the UK, haven’t enjoyed the same popularity however on our home turf, perhaps because it’s a polarising vegetable at the best of times. According to a US 2021 Mashed survey, 38% of respondents voted it the worst dish! Quite the opposite to the humble potato, which is the most commonly-found dish on the festive table. Roast potato, potato bake, potato salad, potato pave, potato rosti, potato gems - there are all manner of variations to sit alongside the turkey centrepiece!

And when you think roast turkey, gravy no doubt also comes to mind as it’s the most served sauce on the Christmas table. The perfect accompaniment to a roast, it was once distinctly British, mainly because no other country had such enthusiasm for roasting. And, taste aside, the highlight is that the makings of the sauce are pretty much already there – it’s simply the pan juices from the roast, deglazed with stock or water, defatted, thickened and seasoned. And, voilà, it’s ready to be poured into a fit-for-purpose gravy boat!

The other major condiment that accompanies the turkey is cranberry sauce. As Food Writer Annie Gray recounts, this sauce is ostensibly American, with its modern adoption with turkey coming directly from its appearance on Thanksgiving tables. And, while on the topic, a piece of gratuitous advice - be sure to get in early as it’s prone to selling out early - and who wants to make a mad dash around the stores on Christmas Eve? (Yes, speaking from experience!) Of course, you can always make your own – just source some fresh or frozen cranberries and follow one of the many recipes available online, such as this one from Simply Recipes.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is the stuffing, which has been around since the late medieval era. At its simplest, stuffing is a seasoned bread mixture of onions and herbs, although varieties, often including meat, abound. A delicious addition to the meat, it was originally created to help eke out the rabbit, mutton or brisket, as a little often had to go a long way in many families. Recipes were basic, using breadcrumbs, oats and suet, with perhaps a touch of spice and herbs. By the 17th century, the widely-used name was forcemeat, from the French ‘farcer’, to stuff. Then, by the mid-20th century, it had undergone a gradual name change to the simpler ‘stuffing’.

Christmas Roast Turkey

Christmas Roast Turkey

Credit: Real Homes

Christmas Ham

Back in the days of Tudor England, a boar’s head was the most popular centrepiece on the wealthiest families’ Christmas tables. Interestingly, this custom is said to be a holdover from the pagan tradition of honouring Freyr, a Norse god of fertility and the harvest, whose companion was a chariot-pulling boar with golden bristles. For families of lesser means, a Yule ham was favoured, as it was easier to procure, less expensive and equally delicious.

The meat’s popularity grew, such that by the 19th century it became the archetypical centrepiece of the Christmas settings in the works by Charles Dickens. By the 1950s, this festive staple had taken a sweet and salty turn, becoming glazed in brown sugar and garlanded with canned pineapple slices, bright red maraschino cherries and whole cloves.

Old Fashioned Glazed Ham

Old Fashioned Glazed Ham

Credit: Food Network

So, with the ham holding its own over several millennia now, it’s not likely to be making an exit from our tables anytime soon. Back to the 2021 Mashed survey where 36% of respondents ranked honey-glazed ham at Number 1 favourite! This is not to overlook the spiral-cut or dry-cured ham, to which people also stated they were quite partial. And, while this survey was US-based, the Christmas ham is generally a frontrunner among Australian favourites, e.g., ranking third (after pavlova and seafood platter) in Chef’s Pencil’s 2021 list of 20 most popular Christmas foods. 

Now, with pavlova being such a crowd favourite, where better to head next than to the story of this Christmas classic!

Pavlova

The question of where the pavlova originated will probably always remain a mystery. Featuring among the many hot and contested issues of heritage between Australia and New Zealand, the ‘pav’, as it is affectionately called by both countries, has been tossed around in the kangaroo courts of culinary genealogy since the 1920s!

On the one hand, Australians think of the pav as the quintessentially Australian dessert. New Zealanders, on the other, claim it definitively as their own – and there’s even a fixed display in the town of Otorohanga that provides a lengthy explanation as to why and how the famed dessert was invented in New Zealand! (Protesting too much, methinks!)

Squabbles aside, both countries agree that the dessert took its name from the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) during her dance tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1926.  Pavlova, who was most recognised for creating the role of The Dying Swan, was one of the big names of her time and travelled the world to the acclaim of rapturous audiences. She was also an astute businesswoman and word has it that she licensed her name out for various eponymous creations.  And so it’s safe to assume that she gave her blessings to the naming of this divine dish.

Food History explains how Australians believe that the dessert was created at a hotel in Perth and was given its name after one of the diners remarked that it was ‘light as Pavlova’. New Zealanders, on the contrary, attribute its origins to a Wellington hotel where the chef invented the dessert in Pavlova’s honour, claiming inspiration from her tutu.

And, throwing a cat among the pigeons, the latest research suggests that the dessert might not belong to either country! Researchers Dr Andrew Paul Wood (NZ) and Annabelle Utrecht (Aus) have found evidence of Austrian and German meringues, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, that bear striking resemblance to the pavlova of today. They claim that the early recipe underwent a number of adaptations, travelling from Germany to the US and then to Australasia, the latter on the back of packets of cornflour!

This may be so, but let’s not forget that special something that the enduring Australian / NZ creation brings to the culinary world. Particularly in comparison to its sibling the meringue (crispy and dry throughout), the pavlova is crispy on the outside and light, fluffy, soft and marshmallow-like on the inside. Topped with whipped cream and a combination of fresh fruits, it’s a true Aussie (or NZ) delight!

Pavlova

Pavlova

Credit: Taste 

Christmas Pudding

Rounding off these festive dishes is another discerning crowd favourite – the Christmas pudding. It has such an interesting history that we’ve looked not only into the celebrated dessert itself, but also its all-important trimmings.

Humble Beginnings

The iconic Christmas pudding originated in England in the 14th century as a type of porridge known as ‘frumenty’. Made with a base of grain, such as wheat or barley, or meat, including beef and mutton, it was cooked in milk for a sweet dish or broth for a savoury alternative, and was generally served in the form of a soup during the Christmas preparation.

By the end of the 14th century, it had gone through several name changes, including Christmas pudding, plum pudding, figgy pudding and plain ‘Pud’, all of which have carried through to current times. And then on to the 16th century when dried fruit became readily available and raisins, currants, spices and wines – quite an ensemble of tastes! – were added to bring zest to what was by then a predominantly sweet dish.

‘Frumenty’ – An Early Version of the Christmas Pud

‘Frumenty’ – An Early Version of the Christmas Pud

Credit: A Dollop of History

By the 1600s, plum pudding had become the customary Christmas dessert but then, alas, in 1647, the Puritans in England, under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, attempted to ban the dessert as part of a larger effort to rid the country of activities deemed immoral, sinful, corruptible or non-Christian. The story goes that Puritans believed the Christmas pudding to be ‘sinfully rich’ and ‘unfit for God-fearing people’.

Fortunately, the pudding made a comeback when, as word has it, King George 1 took a liking to it and re-established it as part of the festive tradition during the first Christmas feast of his reign in 1714, thus earning himself the title of ‘the Pudding King’. Some question the legitimacy of the title (there are no records of this prior to the 20th century), but we can be thankful that by the mid-1700s, a hundred years after its attempted banning, the pudding had once again assumed pride of place as the favoured Christmas sweet.

A Pudding of Many Flavours

A peculiar fact about the plum pudding is that it is decidedly lacking in plums! The name comes from the practice (particularly prevalent in the Victorian era) of substituting dried plums with other dried fruits, such as raisins. But, due to the popularity of dried plums and prunes, recipes containing dried fruits were commonly referred to as plum cakes or plum puddings - go figure!

Traditionally, a plum pudding should have 13 ingredients, which represent Jesus and the 12 disciples. To stay true to the custom, you should include raisins, currants, brown sugar, suet (similar to lard), citron (lemon), breadcrumbs, lemon peel, orange peel, mixed spices, flour, eggs, milk and brandy.

There’s quite a bit of preparation that goes into the making of the pudding, which should, by rights, be a family affair. In fact, the last Sunday before Advent is referred to as ‘Stir-up Sunday’ when the whole tribe assembles to take turns to stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon (representing Jesus Christ’s manger).

Stirring should be from east to west, to symbolise the journey taken by the Three Wise Men, with every family member doing three rotations and making a secret wish. Back in the day, it was believed that if an unmarried family member forgot to join in, then they wouldn’t find a partner in the coming year (assuming they wanted to!). Incidentally, Stir-up Sunday falls on 20 November this year, so it’s soon time to get to it!

During the preparation, it used to be customary to add a silver coin, the notion being that whoever found the coin would have good luck (that unmarried family member might have been in for some good fortune, after all!). This ritual is thought to date back as far as the 1300s when small items such as dried peas and chicken wishbones were added to the mixture.

Sadly, when the Australian currency changed to decimal, the new copper coins would turn green and give the pudding a metallic taste, so now it’s a case of opting for pre-decimal currency (you can buy packs of sixpence and tuppence from coin dealers), using an alternative, such as silver charm/s, or doing away with the tradition altogether and focusing on other fun aspects of the dining experience.

The Christmas Pudding Coin

The Christmas Pudding Coin

Credit: The Pud Blog

Turning to the cooking of the Pud, this is customarily done via the boiling method, the mixture having previously been wrapped in a pudding cloth. (Steaming in a bowl is more common nowadays.) After cooking for about four to six hours, the dessert is ready to take its place of honour at the Christmas dinner table, often decorated with a sprig of holly (try the faux variety – holly berries are poisonous). The pudding is then doused with brandy and flambéed, the flaming liquor said to represent the passion of Christ.

And next in store are the trimmings, which elevate the dessert from the delicious to the sublime!

The Must-Have Trimmings

The traditional sauce for the Christmas pudding is a brandy butter, also referred to as a ‘hard sauce’ in the US. Brandy butter is known to have originated in England, but when it was created is less certain. The first written reference to the sauce, as stated in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1939, which, according to food history writer the Old Foodie is clearly very belated. 

There are plenty of varieties available in stores or you can follow the established tradition and make your own, being sure to keep some brandy aside for the flambéing! Brandy butter can be made with brandy (no surprises there!) or with whiskey, sherry, cognac or rum, depending on personal preference. The idea of the butter is that it is placed on top of the warm pudding so that it immediately melts into a rich sauce that drizzles down the sides.

Brandy butter’s twin, brandy sauce, a liquid sauce made of milk, butter, sugar, flour and a dash of brandy or cognac, is also very popular. Infusing the sauce with vanilla and omitting the alcohol works well, too. And then there’s the old-faithful custard, served hot or cold, which might not be exclusive to the Pud but is sure to please. Or you might like to try the corner-cutting Eggnog Cream created by English food writer Nigella Lawson. Requiring double cream, advocaat and some swift whisking, this one is a fun twist on an old theme.

Of course, a dollop or two of cream never goes astray, especially if you opt for the delicious double or clotted variety. Given our Tasmanian heritage (Gawler, N.W. Coast ), we have a soft spot for the Apple Isle’s dairy products, such as the Meander Valley double cream, which, with a 56% milk fat content, is thick enough to scoop out with a spoon – yum!

Finally, a serve of vanilla ice cream is hard to resist and a great way to entice kids to try a slice of Pud. Particularly good on our warmer Christmas Days, ice cream can also be made into the star of the dish, in the form of a frozen Christmas pudding. Try out this one!

Plum Pudding with Brandy Sauce

Plum Pudding with Brandy Sauce

Credit: Free Food Photos

§ § §

 If we’ve piqued your interest and whetted your appetite, then our work here is done! Of course, there are so many Christmas favourites to choose from and our ventures into the culinary past are really only just beginning. Remember we’ll have more coming your way next year!

Before then, though, we have our ten top recipe picks for this year’s Christmas coming up in our December blog. And we’re pretty sure that, among others, the roast turkey and Christmas pudding recipes will both be a hit!

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