Some more fascinating facts as we roam around the world and wonder which century we are in? Turkey’s are American, the Spanish, in the early 1500s, brought turkeys with them on their return across the Ocean, established them in farms, from where they quickly spread across Europe, but it took a few centuries before our Christmas dinner was usurped by the American invader!
Medieval Christmas centred around the lord of the manor and his tenants and had different customs dependent upon the specifics for that lordship. The peasants would have bread, cheese, pottage, two meats, but would have to provide their own plate, mug and napkin, if they wished a cover to be on the table; then the peasant would have to bring a faggot of brushwood to cook his food, unless he wanted it raw!
Spring planting on a French ducal manor in March - from the illuminated manuscript: Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410s
The manorial barons feasted when it suited them, not necessarily related to the Church festivals, though these merged over times, but the feasting could last for days. The quantity of food consumed appears to be huge, but the entourages of their guests needed to be fed too. The platters offered would have included a boar, beef, deer, pigs, fowls, partridges and geese, bread and cheese, gallons of ale and mainly red wine, though some white – and this was in the 1200s.
Early Medieval literature flourishes with descriptions of Arthurian Christmas feasts lasting over a fortnight – festivities over a period of days was quite common - clarion trumpets would marshal the guests to table, hands were rinsed in spiced scented warm water, while a Latin Grace was chanted. Then the servers would appear with steaming platters of spit-roasts, baked dishes, roasts and boiled dishes, and finally an elaborate “sotelty” – which is an entremet: ‘between the courses’ .. to allow time for digestive settlement, without stopping the festivities and may have depicted a successive phase of the Christmas story.
So I think you can see as England became more settled and more established into the manorial system, which over time has been phased out (though was still apparent in parts of east Germany even after the 2nd World War), food was the preserve of those who could earn or barter. As more and more produce became available either by cultivation of the lands, or through imports as the world became more connected our tastes grew. A sauce, similar to Worcester sauce, honey, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, saffron, mustard, dried fruits and nuts had all been available and would have been used by cooks even in Roman times.
However as with all good things, and all development, a spanner was thrown into the works in England as Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell (the Protector ruled 1653 – 1658); he banned carols and anyone cooking a goose, baking a cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of a fine, confiscation or worse! Charles II reinstated the holiday albeit in a subdued manner.
A tremendous amount of food had to be kept on hand, for the guests and family of the large houses, remembering as well as the servants, gardeners, coachmen, stable-hands etc. Recipes made in advance and served cold became popular – cold meats, pickles, jellies and puddings. There was always a turkey (picture above), this was the late1700s, goose or mutton, though venison held pride of place, while afterwards the Christmas or plum pudding was served ablaze with brandy sauce.
As the years passed people remembered the rituals of their ancestors or added new ones and by the 1800s it was once again a highly celebrated and significant time, though it would not reach its zenith until the Victorian era.
Did you know that Charles Dickens, in October 1843, was happily (I presume) writing Martin Chuzzlewitt, when he had an inspiration to write a “little carol” finishing it by the end of November, self-publishing it in time for Christmas .. and the rest is history for “A Christmas Carol”.
First edition frontispiece and title page: as published and approved by Charles Dickens
The impoverished Cratchits as described by Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” took their Christmas goose to the local bakers to be cooked for a small fee, as the homes of the poor in Victorian times were equipped with open fireplaces for heat and cooking, but not ovens.
The Victorian poor may have saved over several months, by paying a local public house landlord a small fee, in exchange for the goose at Christmas time – these were known as Goose Clubs. The bird may well then have been stuffed with various force meats, including chestnuts (free), herbs from the fields, vegetables, mixed in with rusky bread. It was those Romans again and the Arabs, who started filling the birds’ cavities before cooking to give extra flavour.
Now for our Christmas, we will have on Christmas Eve glazed roast ham with good fresh vegetables, and a light fruit dessert, like spiced oranges – before we go to midnight mass at our local Church of England church; Christmas Day is usually smoked salmon, fresh salad vegetables, mince pies, breads and cheese before a good walk across the Downs with the dogs.
A deserving slice of Christmas cake with tea next, followed later on by dinner of roast turkey and all the trimmings – ham, chipolata sausages (thin ones!), prunes wrapped in bacon, two sorts of stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots and brussel sprouts, with lashings of gravy, bread sauce and red currant jelly; then a flamed Christmas pudding dotted with silver good luck coins (we have to return them for next year! and we, being Cornish, have Cornish clotted cream with ours, as well as brandy butter.
My taste buds are salivating at the thought .. this is all laid out and served on a table well decorated with – flowers from the garden, probably autumn crocuses, linen table cloth, with napkins made into water lilies, wonderful crockery and glass, candles, crackers .. what else could one want – a pleasure to behold – watched over by a decorated Christmas tree bursting with birds, baubles, tinsel and glittering lights. We are blessed by my sister-in-law who puts all this together for us.
I have to finish with a poem .. and just a reminder of those days .. the animals and birds were walked to the fair before being sold! Tough times ....
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please to put a penny in the old man's hat;
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny then God bless you!
We can all give this Christmas according to our means ... even if we can only give our blessing and peaceful thoughts.
Dear Mr Postman – we will continue to visit my mother during this period, even though she cannot participate with the food or drink. Interestingly this year she has said she’d like some Christmas decorations .. so I shall have to put some up – the room is not really designed for things like this .. still I’ll make a plan – I decorated my uncle’s room when he was in over Christmas two years ago.
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