evolution of Christmas dinner is a story of robust, merry feasting
reaching down through history. Just where and when the first
Christmas feast was held, records fail to tell. But by the 11th
century, strange and marvelous dishes loaded long tables in holly
decked banquet halls during twelve days of bountiful yuletide
Great hunting expeditions sallied forth to fetch the yuletide bird
and a wild boar, for a boar's head was a special treat in medieval
times. Even the autocratic peacock graced the tables of England's
feudal lords. Skinned before roasting, stuffed with spices and sweet
herbs, and then reclothed in its own feathers, it was finally
brought to the banqueting hall, not by a servant, but in stately
pageant by the lady, herself. To the strains of music the honored
guest, attended by her retinue of lovely young maidens, carried in
Juno's bird. Around it flocked young knights-errant to make their
solemn vows over its feathers and pledge their swords to the
romantic adventure of rescuing fair maidens in distress.
The bird was dry eating--even the far-from-finicky cooks of that day
admitted that--but served in all its gorgeous plumage, with its bill
gilded to a glittering gold, and with lots of gravy, it was at least
something to feast the eyes upon.
Even the proud peacock was preceded by the ceremony of bringing in
the boar's head, a custom as far back as 1170. Two handsomely
dressed heralds raised silver trumpets to their lips as the chief
cook carried in a massive silver platter containing the boar's head,
garnished with a substantial wreath of bay, sprigs of rosemary in
its ears and a roasted apple in its mouth. This lordly dish was
followed by minstrels and other servants carrying in lesser dishes
to grace the "groaning board," as the table was said to "groan" from
the weight of all the food.
Not only in England, but in many lands, pig played a special role in
the Christmas menu. Historians argue over its significance, but some
believe it was a symbolic renunciation of heathenism. A medieval
interpretation of the 80th Psalm said: "Where Satan is the Wild Boar
out of the wood." To carry in the head of the boar in triumph was a
testimony to Satan's defeat.
Swans were a common Christmas dainty in 1500. On Christmas Day,
1512, in the Duke of Northumberland's household, five swans were
dished up for dinner. Fifty years later the menu contained not only
a roast swan, but a goose and even a "turkie." All were boiled, not
roasted, and served with celery sauce.
Roast beef of Old England, whether boiled or roasted, was a savory
reminder of the Druids' sacrificing of the bulls when the sacred
mistletoe was cut. Vegetables included roots and pot herbs such as
beets, carrots, colwrots, parsnips, salsafy, skirrets, and turnips.
Potatoes were introduced in 1586 but were a rarity until after the
array of holiday foods. One indispensable old-time Christmas dish
which is never heard of today was furmety, or frumenty, which
according to an old recipe was 'Wheat boiled till the grains burst,
and when cool strained and coiled again with broth or milk and yolks
of eggs." This pottage eventually was boiled up with dried plums,
prunes, raisins, a slice of ginger cake, currants, and an egg or two
to become plum pudding. Originally intended to suggest the richness
of the Wide Men's gifts, it has come to symbolize Christmas in
Mince meat pies were first made oval to represent the cradle and
their original form were more meat than sweet. In 1394, one
enterprising cook took pheasant, rabbit, capon, two partridges, two
pigeons, and two conies and chopped them up, baked them in a crust
shaped like a bird with a head at one end and a great tail at the
As for drink, Christmas revelers drank wassail from "good brown
bowls" a traditional drink made of a mixture of hot ale, sugar and
nutmeg. On Christmas Eve apples were roasted on a string until they
dropped off into a great bowl of this hot ale, whereupon the
beverage became Lamb's Wool.
Even here in America, punch bowls are brought down off the shelf. As
the cups go around, the mirth and wassail echo back the joviality of
those long departed days.