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From German Stollen to English Egg Nog: The history of Christmas dinner

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Less than a week left before one of the largest and in some cultures and religions – the most important holiday, Christmas, will take place around the world on December 25. More or less a week prior is just about the time, when family members are starting to gather together in homes of the relatives and/or parents and prepare for the celebration.

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Christmas, by far, is one of the most important family holidays in USA, even though some of my American friends consider Thanksgiving to be as important and beloved, if not more, as Christmas - due to the fact that in addition to having all the elements of Christmas, minus presents, it has no religious association of any kind. In many families, Christmas became just a family holiday, rather than a religious holiday - one of the reasons many Jewish families celebrate it too.

However, as much as Christmas might be universal and be celebrated around the world, it's not, really, universal as it differs by a culture and country, not to mention the countries, where Christmas is celebrated on a different day, like it is in Russia. Russian Christmas is on January 7.

There’s a lot of history behind the celebration of Christmas, some of which go as far as Medieval times, which traditions and most importantly - foods and drinks - are described in many history and cooking books, but are less known to the general public. In general, not many people ask about the history of Christmas celebration. How many of you have ever wondered what drinks are popular during Christmas time in Germany? Philippines? Or in Lithuania? And where from the candy canes are coming and who started to bake gingerbread first?

No matter where and how Christmas is celebrated, ultimately, it’s a family holiday, and Christmas dishes and drinks are usually considered “the best of the year”, because of its diversity and uniqueness as some of the holiday dishes are only made once a year – for Christmas. This is more common in other parts of the world, such as Europe, where the dishes usually depend on what’s in season. That is why Christmas time is associated with some of the people with a particular fruit and/or vegetable. When I was growing up in Russia, I associated Christmas and New Year's with mandarines and walnuts, because they were always part of the kid's gifts in kindergartens and schools, and not in other times. In USA most of the foods and drinks are available year around.

While a family-style dinner with a ham or turkey as the star of the holiday meal might be the most classic element of the American Christmas dinners, a typical holiday meal in other parts of the world can look much different.

So, what people ate for Christmas in Medieval times?

It depended greatly upon who they were (peasants, merchants, nuns, lords, kings) and where they lived (England, France, Germany, Spain)? One must also consider the fact that some Christian holidays were celebrated in much longer periods than a single day. The Christmas season officially extends until Twelfth Night. This was another grand meal with its own unique traditions. Today some cultures still celebrate Twelfth night by serving a King Cake.

At Christmas it was frequently the custom for each [peasant] tenant to give to the lord a hen (partly as payment for being allowed to keep poultry), or sometimes grain which was brewed into ale. At Christmas also the lord was expected to give his tenants a meal, for example, bread, cheese, pottage and two dishes of meat. Also, depending on the social status, the working class, including servants and peasants, were given only a few half-days off during Christmas, while rich and noble people had up to two weeks of Christmas celebration and each day of this Christmas celebration was accompanied with a particular set of foods and drinks.

Christmas had a variety of dishes associated with it. The first was the boar's head, which formed the centerpiece of the Christmas Day meal, and while turkey is mentioned in the history as one of the many Christmas dishes, it was never a center piece, but rather part of the ongoing serves of holidays foods, which included mutton, pork, veal souse (pickled pig's feet and ears), brawn, cheese and apples.

Usually, many Americans when speaking about the origins of Christmas dinner refer to the traditions of the first settlers, most of whom were from Great Britain. Most of us, especially here in USA, when we think of this period, we often fondly recall the Christmas feast described in Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, where The Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner consisted of plump roast goose, oyster stuffing, mincemeat, Christmas (aka plum) pudding and Wassail. But, is this what everyone ate? Likely not.

Like in many European countries at that time, the society in England was greatly divided socially based on economic station. As was traditional, people celebrated Christmas with the very best meal they could afford. Most of the "classic" Victorian menus and recipes are dated 1860-1900. However, there are a few holiday dinner items that stand out. I was very curious myself to find out the story of each as I get to experience the Christmas dinners and celebrations in other countries over the years and no meal was the same as many of the holiday dishes were very typical to that particular culture and included ingredients, some of which I never had before, like glazed roasted chestnuts in plum sauce, used as stuffing for a duck. Let's take a look at some of the famous Christmas foods and drinks that came to America from other cultures.

So, what is Stollen?

I learned about this Christmas cake in 1994, when living in Germany. Since then I’ve tried many kinds of Stollen. I can say that I now associate this cake with Christmas, and was very happy to learn that Trader Joe stores in USA are now caring Stollen near the holidays. Ironically, no Stollen is the same in Germany. Just yesterday, my mother bought Stollen for our Christmas dinner this year, which was made in Dresden. She learned from our German friends that the one from Dresden is considered to be the best and most authentic one among the Germans, its recipe is the oldest.

Stollen is a rich fruit bread/cake from central Germany. The name is derived from an Old High German word, stollo, meaning a support or post. The characteristic shape of Stollen--oblong, tapered at each end with a ridge down the centre--is said to repersent the Christ Child in swaddling clothes, whence the name Christollen sometimes given to it. The Dresden Stollen, now known internationally as a Christmas specialty, is made from a rich, sweet yeast dough, mixed with milk, eggs, sugar, and butter, sometimes flavoured with lemon. Raisins, sultanas, currants, rum or brandy, candied peel, and almonds are worked into the dough. After baking, the Stollen is painted with melted butter and dusted with sugar.

All these sweet breads were developed in Europe during Medieval times and were traditionally saved for holiday times because they were expensive. Cook of all times and places save their very best ingredients for special occasions.

Candy canes

Why are some candies associated with Christmas?

Hundreds of years ago sugar was very expensive. It was a food of the wealthy. For other people, it was a special treat saved for holidays (Christmas, Easter) and other special occasions (weddings, christenings). Many of these traditions remain today.

Food historians tell us that hard candies were originally manufactured for medicinal purposes. This idea survives today in the form of cough drops. Confectioners were quick to recognize the popularity of hard candy, in its various forms. Before long, hard candies of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors were produced for "recreational" purposes.

The origin of the candy cane is an interesting study of food lore and legend. The most popular story is the one about the German choirmaster who handed these out to his young singers in 1670 to keep them quite during a long church service. There is also controversy as to the origin of the shape. Does it represent a shepherd's crook? Or the letter "J" for Jesus? Bear in mind, most of these stories are undocumented.

Christmas cookies

Cakes of all shapes and sizes (including smaller items such as cookies) have been part of festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes.

Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. Dutch New Year's cookies were also sometimes molded into fancy shapes. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. Sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions. Did you know Animal crackers began as edible ornaments?

By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers). The earliest Christmas cookies in America came ashore with the Dutch in the early 1600s. (Source: America's Best Holiday Cookies, McCall's magazine, 1994)

The flood of cheap imported wares form Germany between 1871 and 1906 when the import laws were changed, inundated our Christmas markets with cooking utensils like cookie cutters. Unlike homemade counterparts, or local tinsmith's wares, these tools depicted highly stylized images, often made specifically to be hung on Christmas tree. Likewise, recipes appeared in popular cookbooks to better match the demands of such utensils. In a sense, with the advent of inexpensive tin cutters, new emphasis was placed on shape, where in the past, many homemade cookies simply had been square or round.

Christmas birds: peacocks, swans, geese & turkeys

Food historians tell us the practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas, like many other Christian holiday food traditions, was borrowed from earlier cultural practices. Peacocks, swans, geese and turkeys all fit this bill. The larger the bird, the more festive the presence. "New World" turkeys were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. For many years, these "exotic" turkey birds only graced the tables of the wealthy. Working-class English Victorian families, like the Cratchits in Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol", ate goose. In America, turkey (wild and plentiful) was a natural choice for the Christmas feast. And yet? Our survey of historic newspapers reveals the goose still commanded a traditional place on the Christmas table through the 19th century.

Egg nog

The reason you won't find 16th century recipes for "egg nog" is the term didn't appear in print until the next century. Food historians/period recipes confirm English recipes for posset and Syllabub were similar to later egg nog. References to 16th century Jamestown egg nog were published after the from 18th century forwards, it is most likely the author was using a newer/more popular & accepted American term to denote an old traditional English holiday beverage.

Syllabub

Syllabub belongs to the English family of creamy dessert beverages combining dairy products and sweet wine. Originally a holiday beverage, syllabub invited many interesting variations based on viscosity and application.

The syllabub is, actually, a Tudor invention. Its defining characteristic is the mixing of white wine (or cider or fruit juice) with sweetened cream, so curdling the cream, but from earliest times it has diverged into two basic types: a stiff version eaten as a dessert, and a thinner one for drinking. The former was made with thicker cream, often reinforced by beaten egg whites, the latter with single cream or even milk, sometimes introduced directly from the cow's udder into a bowl containing the wine and other ingredients. Both sorts remained very popular until the mid-nineteenth century but then they went out of fashion; the late twentieth century has seen a revival of the firmer sort, as a sort of historical curiosity, but not of the drink. As for the name syllabub, that remains a complete mystery. (Source: An A to Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto, Oxford University Press, 2002)

Fruitcake

While the practice of making cakes with dried fruits, honey and nuts may be traced back to ancient times, food historians generally agree that fruitcake (as we know it today) began in the Middle ages. In those days, imported, dried fruits and nuts were very expensive and generally saved for holiday fare.

What sets fruit cakes apart from their confectionery cousins is being prepared long before they are meant to be enjoyed. Historically, alcohol provided both flavor and natural preservative. Today, that ingredient is no longer necessary and often omitted.

Gingerbread

Food historians confirm ginger has been flavoring foods and beverages from ancient times forward. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. So, why do we call it gingerbread?

It was originally, in the thirteenth century, gingerbras, a word borrowed from Old French which meant 'preserved ginger'. But by the mid-fourteenth century - bread had begun to replace -bras, and it was only a matter of time before sense followed form. One of the earliest known recipes for it, in the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, directs that it be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices. This is the lineal ancestor of the modern cake-like gingerbread in which treacle has replaced honey. (Source: An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto, Oxford University Press, 2002)

About gingerbread in America

Most early American cookies were referred to as "cakes," and gingerbread was assumed to be a form of cookie, as in Lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie made with honey. Of all the Christmas pastries, the gingerbread cookie was one the one most loved by early American children. I suspect that a large part of this popularity hinged on the fact that gingerbread was cheap, easy to make, a small batch would yield many cookies, and that gingerbread dough stood up fairly well under the vagaries of both brick-oven and cook-stove baking. It was pretty hard to ruin it.

In American cookery, there are two distinct families of gingerbread cookies, the honey-based gingerbreads of Middle European origin -- mostly Germany -- and the molasses shortbreads that developed in England or Scotland, depending upon which historian you wish to believe. The other developed in the late seventeenth century, using molasses as a substitute for honey. The Germans in this country were the best honey cake bakers -- they called the cookies Lebkuchen. (The Christmas Cook, William Woys Weaver, Harper Perennial, 1990)

Mincemeat and mince pies

People have been mincing (chopping into tiny pieces) meat and other foods since ancient times. Hash is a related food. Many cultures cultivated mincemeat, as a way to store meats and/or use them as ingredients for baking pies and other dishes.

According to the food historians, mincemeat pie dates back to Medieval times. At that time, this recipe did, indeed, include meat. It also often contained dried fruits, sugar, and spices, as was the tradition of the day. The distinction between mincemeat and mince was drawn in the mid-nineteenth century when meat began disappearing from the recipe, leaving the fruit, nut, sugar, spice, and suet product we know today.

This is what the food historians have to say: Mincemeat originally meant simply minced meat. But in the Middle Ages and into Renaissance times and beyond it was commonplace to spice up or eke out meat with dried fruit, and it seems likely that the earliest mince-pies contained a generous measure of such raisins, currants, etc.

Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding)

Christmas pudding dates back to Medieval times. Traditionally made on Stir Up Sunday, this special dessert contains charms symbolizing good luck for the New Year. Hard sauce was introduced in the 19th century.

Christmas pudding can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name 'plum' refers to a prune; but it soon came to mean any dried fruit. By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called 'Christmas pottage'. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert. What currently counts as the traditional Christmas pudding recipe has been more or less established since the 19th century. (Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press, 2000)

All in all, the most important goal of the Christmas celebration is to get together with your family and less of it is to celebrate a religious holiday. Christmas has been becoming more like a very good, cozy winter holiday, which gathers family and dear friends together for the celebration of love, happiness and strong family values and it just a bonus that Christmas comes with one of the most delicious and rich meals of the year.

In my next article I'll talk about the Christmas foods and drinks popular in other countries, and tell you more about Christmas time in Germany, where I've been spending my Christmas with the family in the last few years - the people, the foods, the drinks and entertainment.

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