On 25 December, lots of families across the UK will tuck into a Christmas dinner. Everyone has their favourite part that they just can't go without, whether it's the roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings or some delicious gravy. But travel back 100 years into the past, and would a Christmas dinner look the same? What about 500 years, or 4,500 years? Well wonder no more! We've explored festive feasts through history, from prehistoric midwinter feasts, to Tudor banquets fit for Henry VIII and a more modern dinner in the 1930s that you might even recognise.
Neolithic Festive Feasting
In the late Neolithic period, we think that people gathered together to take part in midwinter feasts. Archaeological excavations at a settlement called Durrington Walls near Stonehenge have found thousands of pig and cattle bones in rubbish piles around the houses. By looking carefully at how much the pig teeth had been worn down, archaeological scientists were able to tell that they had mostly been killed when they were about 9 months old. The pigs were probably born in the spring and therefore had been killed around midwinter.
The pork had been roasted on spits, whilst the beef had been made into stews cooked in large pots. Some of the bones were thrown away with meat still attached, so people must have had plenty of food! From plant remains found, we think they were also eating crab apples, hazelnuts, sloes and blackberries. People were probably gathering at winter to celebrate the midwinter solstice, as we know that the stones of Stonehenge were carefully built to align with the setting sun on the shortest day. That’s pretty close in date to our Christmas!
Roman Saturnalia Celebrations
The Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia was held in honour of the Roman god Saturn. Starting on the 17th of December, it consisted of up to seven days of parties and public ceremonies. Throughout the year, the Romans normally followed extremely strict rules of behaviour and everyone knew their place. But during the Saturnalia, these rules were set aside. Even slaves, who led hard lives with little time off, had permission to relax and have fun. Gambling was encouraged and freeborn Romans wore colourful clothes and a pileus, a conical hat normally only worn by freed slaves, rather than formal togas.
The main Saturnalia tradition was the household feast, which could last for days. Masters invited their slaves to dine with them or even served their slaves themselves - unthinkable at other times of the year! The food probably varied depending on the household, but it would have been a rare opportunity for slaves to eat the fine foods normally reserved for their masters, and drink lots of wine. After the food there was more drinking, games, performances and, just like today, gifts were exchanged. Popular gifts included humble writing tablets as well as more expensive things, like exotic animals.
A Merry Monastic Christmas
Christmas was a time of feasting and celebration for medieval monks and nuns. For most of the year their food was usually very bland and mainly included things like mushy vegetable soup and coarse bread, with occasional fish, cheese and poultry. However, things were very different at Christmas. In the week leading up to Christmas Eve, food in monasteries was made tastier thanks to a special daily allowance of spices. The food and drink consumed at Christmas was also much better. Various kinds of fish, often cooked in wine and flavoured with herbs, were enjoyed and monks and nuns also ate pies made up from minced meat or offal served in thick, heavily flavoured gravy.
By the 14th century, monastery tables also included joints of roasted beef, pork and venison. This meat was cooked in its own kitchen and eaten in a special dining hall called the ‘misericord.’ It’s been estimated that at Christmas, monks at wealthy monasteries were eating up to 7000 calories a day – about three times more than they needed to stay healthy. No wonder so many became very fat! Christmas was also a time to drink and be merry. The financial accounts from Battle Abbey show that enormous amounts of money were spent on wines imported from France to be drunk at Christmas and at other important religious holidays.
People from outside the monasteries made gifts to monks and nuns for their Christmas food and drink, called ‘pittances’. This generosity was rewarded with prayers, and helped ensure that monks and nuns had a very merry Christmas indeed.
Christmas in a Castle
In medieval England, the types of food served at Christmas were similar to those eaten on other feast days, like Easter and Whitsun. Fancy dishes were served in the wealthiest of castles, and there were larger portions of food and drink in the homes of peasants across the kingdom.
Everyone, rich or poor, used lots of bread. In wealthy households, diners placed small amounts of meat, fish or pottage – a kind of thick stew made from vegetables and grains – onto a thick slice of bread or a hollowed out loaf, called a trencher. Extravagant feasts included whole boar’s heads stuffed with bacon, salt and spices; spit roasted peacocks served whole, with the feathers re-attached; and huge quantities of pies. After the meal, soggy bread and pastry from the pies was sometimes given to poor people who waited at the manor or castle gates, or it was thrown away.
We don’t know whether spiced wine was usually drunk at Christmas, but we do know that poor people drank ale (a type of beer) and rich people had ale as well as expensive imported wines. Wine and ale were served in jugs on the table for guests to help themselves, and servants made sure the jugs were topped up. Ale was not very alcoholic and each person only drank a small amount of wine.
Terrific Tudor Feasts
Tudor Christmas meant serious feasting for the royal household – and that meant lots of meat. The traditional choices were beef, venison and wild boar, but the Tudors also ate a range of wild animals and birds that we wouldn’t eat today, including badger, blackbird and woodcock. Turkeys first came to England during the Tudor period were seen as an exotic delicacy. They were walked from Norfolk and Suffolk all the way to market in London. Large feasts also could include peacock, souse (made from pickled pigs feet and ears) and roast swan. A popular Tudor centrepiece was the boar’s head, which would be carried into the banqueting hall on a gold or silver dish accompanied by trumpets and songs.
The Tudors also ate Christmas Pie, made of a pigeon, placed inside a partridge, inside a chicken, inside a goose, inside a turkey, inside a pastry case called a coffin, served with hare and other game birds on the side - what a mouthful!
Other Tudor Christmas food had symbolic meaning. Twelfth Night cake was a type of fruit cake, tasting a bit like a giant brioche. It was baked with a coin or dried bean hidden in the mixture, and whoever found it became the King or Queen to host the evening's entertainment!
Wassailing was also a part of Tudor Christmas celebrations. The tradition was to drink a toast to the fruit trees to produce a good crop next year. Large wooden bowls holding up to a gallon of punch would be filled with hot ale or cider, sugar, spices, and apples, with a crust of bread at the bottom. The bowl was offered to the most important person in the household first, who would drink and pass it on. Wassail!
Georgian Christmas Parties
At Christmas time, wealthy Georgians held lavish dinners and parties, eating huge quantities of food. Luxury loving Georgians ate a lot of meat at Christmas, particularly beef, mutton and venison, using it as a way to demonstrate their wealth and status. Poultry was usually served as a side dish, and the main choice of bird was goose, though turkey was now becoming more popular for families who could afford it. Other favourite Georgian Christmas foods included turtle soup, fish, cockles and mussels, brawn (a meat jelly made from the boiled head of a calf seasoned with spices), mince pies, plum pudding and frumenty – a kind of porridge made with grains, almonds, currants and sugar, which was often served with meat.
Because so much food was eaten in large houses, a lot of it was prepared in advance. Boiled puddings would be made by kitchen staff a week before they were needed, and serving cold foods was usual. It was also usual to serve Christmas puddings and mince pies at the same time as the roast meats! The Georgian recipes for mince pies and Christmas pudding contained less meat than medieval and Tudor ones, and more dried fruit, spices and sugar, though even in the 1850s, food writer Eliza Acton’s recipe for mince pies still contained three tablespoons of diced beef as well as suet (an animal fat). Twelfth Night cakes were also very popular, and by the Regency period were highly decorated with coloured frostings, trimmings and sugar figurines.
Wassailing is another tradition that continued in the Georgian era. At parties, guests drank lightly spiced ale with honey from a large drinking bowl. This Wassail bowl was passed around the dinner table from person to person to drink to each other’s health. The flavour of the drink would have been similar to the mulled wine that many people enjoy at Christmas time today.
A Very Victorian Christmas
Records of the food eaten at Audley End House in Essex in the 1850s show that some Christmas dinner traditions hadn’t changed much since the Georgian era. There was still a lot of roast meat on the menu, including beef, mutton, turkey and venison. But instead of very large parties and gatherings, the Victorians saw Christmas as a family occasion.
Most Victorian families had roast goose for their Christmas dinner, wealthy families ate beef, venison and turkey, often served with a chestnut or veal forcemeat stuffing. In the north, spiced roast beef was the most popular dish. Queen Victoria is known to have enjoyed roast swan, and Avis Crocombe – the cook at Audley End during the 1880s – includes a recipe for swan in her manuscript recipe book.
Other Victorian Christmas favourites included frumenty, oyster soup and roasted ham with stuffing. By this time, vegetables were an important part of the meal for rich people as well as the lower classes. Popular choices were similar to the ones we eat at Christmas time today – potatoes, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips and carrots. For wealthy families, serving unseasonal vegetables like asparagus, beans and tomatoes was a way of demonstrating the skills of your garden staff.
Like the roast meats, a traditional Twelfth Night cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies and wassail punch were still served to the Victorians. They also enjoyed gingerbread, figgy pudding, sugar plums, and nesselrode pudding, a moulded ice pudding made from pureed chestnuts. Warm brandy and mulled wine were popular accompaniments.
A modern 1930s Christmas
A 1930s Christmas dinner included a lot of the dishes we enjoy today. Some people still ate goose, but turkey was the most popular centrepiece in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was usually served with bread sauce. Most people did not own a fridge, so the turkey would have been collected as close to Christmas Day as possible, and would have cost an average person a week’s wages to buy (today, a turkey costs about two hours of an average wage). Wealthy families like the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace might have enjoyed turkey or goose as one of many dishes, and the meal would often include a cold buffet alongside hot food.
Christmas dinner had also now taken the familiar form of a starter, main course and dessert. Recipes from newspapers and magazines from this period list popular Christmas starters as tomato soup, lobster au gratin, orange salad and celery surprise – celery sticks served with a paste made from celery, cod’s roe, butter, lemon juice and pepper.
When it came to dessert, Christmas pudding was very popular. The recipe for the Royal Christmas pudding was published in 1927, and it included ingredients sourced from across the British Empire, including ‘strong ale’. Brandy butter was first served with the pudding from the 1930s, and the custom of pouring alcohol into the Christmas pudding mix when making it started in this period too. In wealthy homes, the plum pudding might be served as one of the choices along with other lighter desserts.
To wash down all of that lovely food, the Courtaulds, like many other rich people in the 1930s, loved cocktails. The Strand newspaper from 1930 published Christmas cocktail recipes that included the sidecar (made from lemon juice, Cointreau and brandy), Champagne punch and eggnog.