We follow very English Christmas traditions in our family. However, I find it amazing to hear how different foods are eaten at Christmas around the world, and that no-one from other cultures eats the English "plum pudding".
Certainly, there would have been none of the English Christmas feast at the time of Jesus' birth at the places where He lived. The Christian Bible allows any worshipper to eat what they like, if they are mindful of the worship it represents - this presents a break from the specific dietary requirements of the Old Testament which included special foods for Jewish Holy Days.
Romans 14 verses 5-6: "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God."
Why are there different dates for Christmas celebrations?
It was not for about 300 years after Jesus' birth that people became interested in celebrating His "birthday"; up to then Easter had been the most important Christian festival. The Bible is specific about the date of the crucifixion and resurrection, but it does not actually give a date for Christ's birthday.
Some people think that our 25 December celebration was borrowed from the pagan festivals around the winter soltice, in various northern hemisphere cultures. Certainly, traditions such as the Christmas tree and some foods have roots in those customs.
However, other scholars (eg. Augustine) believed that Christ was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, and 25 December works out to be exactly 9 months before Christ's crucifixion according to calculations by the Western church. The Eastern churches have used different calendars over the centuries, so their dates for Christmas and Easter vary from ours by a few days, but follow the same theological principle.
Now I have discussed the serious Christmas data, I can return to my favourite topic – FOOD!
Food preparation in the Middle Ages in Europe
In mediaeval times, say 1400s,, the poor people in England (and most people were poor) had a cottage, maybe one room for people with one central fire, and perhaps one attached room for animals in the winter. They had one big pot on the fire for cooking the food, so everything went into that pot and was boiled up for a hot meal, and also for hygiene because keeping the pot boiling would kill the micro-organisms that would otherwise make the food go bad.
Before winter, the staple cereals (oats or rye or barley mostly, depending on climate) would have been harvested, dried and ground. Any fruits would have been harvested in autumn and dried or pickled. The animals would have been slaughtered when feed ran out in autumn (only a few would have been kept for breeding, and maybe some geese).
The meat would have been salted or dried or pickled (eg ham, corned beef) or "jugged" (cooked slowly in a broth, maybe including alcohol, and left to mature.) and maybe a few geese would have been kept. There may have been a few wild herbs, but no spices, sugar, potatoes or tomatoes which were not yet introduced to Europe yet. Any available foodstuff would have gone into the pot, all together.
On an everyday basis, there would have been mostly cereals, making a type of porridge with any vegetables. A little meat would have been rationed out a bit at a time, and the "sweet meats" - dried fruits – added on special occasions. One of those occasions would have been Christmas.
Sugar is an excellent preservative
It turns out, that before sugar was readily available around the 1700s, dried fruits such as grapes and plums (sultanas, raisins and prunes) became a very good source of concentrated sugar.
Bacteria and moulds cannot grow without water. There are two simple ways that food can be made safe from "spoiling" by these micro-organisms – drying (grains, dried fruits, nuts) and by mixing with concentrated sugar or salt, which draws out the water from the bugs and dehydrates them until they die. That is why, nowadays, we can preserve fruits by making jam; and in those days they used salt or pickling solutions.
But our mediaeval friends didn't have sugar. They worked out that by putting some of their dried fruits in their pot with the cereal and the little meat they could spare, and any herbs they had gleaned, the food stayed fresh longer – and it tasted really good compared with the daily bland porridge.
You can now imagine why they made sure they reserved some of the special foods straight after autumn harvest – the dried fruits, some of the fat (suet) from the slaughtered animals before it went rancid, any eggs from the geese before they stopped laying in the winter and some fresh meat too in case it all got eaten or went bad before Christmas. They boiled these things up in a cloth in the common pot, so the special ingredients didn't just get mixed in with the everyday cereal and so that they retained their special flavour, then hung the cloth up on the rafters over the fire to dry out.
Then the rich people ate cake
Later there was flour, yeast, butter, and other imported ingredients such as spices. The rich people were the first to be able to buy and use these. And the rich people had ovens. When the production of bread became common, people worked out it tasted nicer than the stodgy cereal puddings and porridges. In the poor villages, enterprising men became bakers and constructed ovens and baked bread. After that, some of the locals with a little cash would take their Christmas pudding mixture to the baker and pay for him to bake it in the oven.
Now that raises another practical question – who started putting threepenny bits into the Christmas puddings? My grand-parents and my parents did it .....
Once bread and pastries were being made, some of the 'sweet meat' mixture from the common pot was also put into pastry shells, as nutritious snacks for workers and visitors.
And since the geese were the last animals to be slaughtered, they were a convenient and luxurious source of meat for the special Christmas feast (now we usually have turkey, but turkeys were unknown in Europe of that time).
The church changes its mind
There is a little epilogue to this story. In 1664, the Puritans banned this rich pudding or cake, particularly the use of butter, as being inappropriate for a serious Christian festival.
However, by the time King George I came to power, he ordered a pudding for his Christmas feast (now much sweeter version of the Mediaeval cottage pudding), and the Church had no option but to allow people to use butter and eggs and all the new spices available from the Orient.
Merry Christmas everyone!
This Christmas as 'whoever' prepares all these festivities for your enjoyment, and as we ponder of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Immanuel - there is this ongoing annual journey of discovery about the very foods we eat over Christmas. Perhaps, if Jesus was eating with us today, he too might enjoy a taste of Christmas pud!
Christmas colours even in children's push bikes (push bikes)
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html