CHRISTMAS FOODS HAVE A HISTORY
Some culinary traditions pre-date the yuletide celebration
AMAJOR element of Christmas is festive over-indulgence in excess of food, drink and celebration. Along with being a time of over-eating and enjoying rich food there are many culinary traditions which, while associated with the festive season, in some cases even pre-date the celebration of Christmas.
An example of traditional Christmas foods that have a long history is the Buche de Noel or Yule Log, a French traditional dish that has become popular throughout the world. The dessert is a delicious confection of chocolate cake and rich pastry cream rolled into the shape of a log filled with a decadent sauce, cream, or sometimes a jam. Over time, the Yule Log has been adapted and adjusted to different personal and national tastes but the original tradition of the log has remained in the form the cake takes today.
The origin of the Yule Log is to symbolise an actual log which should burn continuously on the fireplace during Christmas night.
If it goes out, it means bad luck in the coming year. The next morning, the ashes from the log are scooped up and kept as a good luck charm to heal sickness, bring on needed rain, and guarantee success in business.
Mince pies are something many people will notice appearing in the shops as December approaches but, while today they are filled with mixed fruit preserves that have a sweet taste and sugared appeal fewer may know that mince pies are so named because they used to contain meat.
Minced pies were a delicacy that grew in popularity in the 13th century as European crusaders, who had been questing for religious enlightenment in the middle-eastern holy lands returned home with various spices and recipes for spiced meats.
The spiced meats (often lamb and goat, though this changed to suit ready availability in Europe of beef and pork), seasoned with the likes of cinnamon, not tasted before in Europe, and mixed with an array of fruits, both local and exotic, created a sweet meat pie.
The pie as it was known then was far larger than today’s mince pies and was banned on a number of occasions by various religious groups for its decadence. It was this luxury association which led to a resurgence in the pie’s popularity in the 1700s as having lavish minced pies became a status symbol, with pies shaped in varying ways and often prepared and displayed in wealthy households as puzzles for disassembly as well as eating.
The ingredients of the pie have had a number of traditions associated with them, including having 13 ingredients to symbolise Christ and his 12 disciples and the contents representing Jesus and those who visited him in Bethlehem while the crust was viewed as the manger and the pastry top the swaddling cloths.
In Britain, it is still believed by some that to eat a mince pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas will bring 12 happy months in the year to follow.
A less-appetising Christmas dining appeal is provided by the fact that, prior to beef, turkey, chicken and ham, often the most desired meat to play centrepiece on the dining table was a boar’s head or lamb’s brains. These were seen as delicacies that for many were only served during the festive season due to their expense and scarcity.
For the wealthy, banquets were commonplace in day to day life but for less fortunate people, creating extravagant dining to celebrate Christmas meant being creative with what was available. The likes of Christmas pudding was a treat as they were made with fruits and flavours which, for much of the year, people did not get to enjoy.
The eastern European region of the Ukraine is one of many sources of culinary Christmas tradition, some of which have carried over into popular belief around the world while others have remained culturally unique to the region.
In the Ukraine there are 12 courses to the traditional Christmas Eve supper. According to folklore, each course is dedicated to one of Christ’s apostles.
The meal does not begin until the family’s youngest member, watching at the window, spots the evening star and then the feast begins. The table on which the feast is eaten has two tablecloths, one for the diners and one for the ancestors of the family. In pagan times, ancestors were believed to be benevolent spirits who, when shown respect, brought good fortune.
There is also a tradition of having an artificial spider in the Christmas tree as this is said to symbolise good luck. This is something which is seen as a tradition internationally where finding a spider in the tree is supposed to bring good fortune for the coming year. In Australia the chances are there will be a blend of traditions from all around the world, as our multicultural make-up as a nation brings together everything from prawns and steaks on the barbecue to turkey and glazed ham with gravy and roast potatoes. Whether on the beach or at a well-dressed dining table, the same sentiment and intent will be carried through all festive feasts as eating and indulging to excess leave all concerned happy and content.