EDIBLE CAROLS Food is big part of Christmas, so much so that a few key dishes and edible treats have made it into some of our most beloved Christmas Carols.
Thought to be originally from France, the English version of 12 Days of Christmas first appeared in 1780 as a memory forfeit game in a children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief. It wasn’t until 1909 that English composer Frederic Austin arranged it over a traditional folk melody and worked in the stand-out verse of “five golden rings” that we all love to sing. You could theme an entire day’s eating on this Christmas carol alone. The eight Maids a-Milking might provide the cheese for Christmas snacking and the cream for Christmas puddings. The six Geese a-Laying would be delicious roasted up for dinner (especially if you’re feeding a crowd), while the three French Hens could provide the eggs for a Christmas Day breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast.
Not to forget the partridge in a pear tree, which could make an appearance on your Christmas table by way of a roast partridge and pear salad with cress and cranberries.
Then there is the evocative “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, the opening line from The Christmas Song definitively sung by Nat King Cole. Nat is singing about the sweet European chestnut, as opposed to the inedible horse chestnuts which are more common in Ireland. is an Irish specialist supplier of fruit and nut trees, and I learn on its website (fruitandnut.ie) that the “earliest record of chestnut cultivation is in Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants, written in
Fruit and Nut
1990s pop warblers Wilson Phillips
the third century BC, but it was the Romans who popularised them all over Northern Europe.
Fruit and Nut host workshops run in collaboration with the Irish Nut Growers Association (irishnutgrowers.ie) on how to grow your own nut trees, including for the sweet chestnut variety. Just think, in a Christmas in your future you could be adding your homegrown roasted sweet chestnuts to a plate of buttery brussel sprouts, topped with crispy bacon. Yum.
For sentimental reasons, my favourite Christmas album of all time is Hey Santa! (1993) by Wendy and Carnie Wilson from Wilson Phillips. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! is the second track, in which the snow “doesn’t show signs of stopping / and I’ve brought some corn popping.” Place a few cloves of garlic, two sprigs of rosemary and a large knob of butter in a saucepan. Melt over a medium heat and pour over freshly made popcorn, before kicking back to listen to the rest of Hey Santa!
A more contemporary reference is Run-DMC.’s Christmas in Hollis, the 1987 single about seasonal cheer in their hometown of Hollis, Queens. Produced by Rick Rubin, it samples Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and Joy to the World. Darry McDaniels aka DMC raps: “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens / Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese.” Back in 1983, DMC declared his love for the dish on the track Sucker MCs from their first album. The dish’s inclusion in their Christmas song surely cements the long-lasting significance of his mother’s classic cooking.
Rocking Around the Christmas Tree is a classic American carol, and the dessert referenced in the song reflects its roots. “Later we’ll have some pumpkin pie and we’ll do some caroling,” sings Zooey Deschanel on She & Him’s 2011’s A Very She & Him Christmas.
“Figgy pudding” is a particularly pleasing phrase to sing, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so in We Wish You A Merry Christmas. In Ireland, we know figgy pudding as Christmas Pudding, a fruit cake rich with spices and currants that is doused in brandy (or whatever you’re having yourself) and set alight. It’s a recipe imported from England, and apparently dates back to the 16th century.
A recipe we’ll be looking to for guidance this Christmas is Theodora Fitzgibbon’s Traditional Christmas Pudding, re-published in Donal Skehan’s brilliant 2014 book The Pleasures of the Table: Rediscovering Theodora Fitzgibbon, a culinary tribute to the food writer whose cookery column in Saturday’s Irish Times ran for 20 years. Find the recipe online at bit.ly/theodorapudding.