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Now bring us some figgy pudding

Well, we’ve already  started the big count-down to Christmas Day. We’re opening the little windows on our Advent calendars day by day, and – especially this year – dreaming of better Christmases past and those to come. So, I thought I’d try to bring a little cheer, with some historical musings on Yuletide fare.

The big build-up

Advent isn’t actually the time to start thinking about gargantuan Christmas feasts. Because in the church calendar, Advent’s actually a time to fast. Everyone knows about the Lent fast, starting 40 days before the Christian feast of Easter. That’s why all the fattening stuff in the larder – all the food that makes life worth living – is used up on Shrove Tuesday. Or Pancake Day as it’s better known. Well, exactly the same thing applies to Christmas.

Early on, Advent kicked off a period of 40 days fasting before the feast of Christmas. In medieval times, all folk observed the rules of fasting for the Advent period. No doubt, that built up a great appetite for the Christmas feasting.  Meat, poultry and dairy foods were banned for the entire period, at risk of severe penalties from the church. Only one thing was allowed as the main meal of the day – and that was fish. Every day, for 40 days. A tough regime indeed.

Bending the rules

Hmm, but hold on – all rules of course are made to be bent a little, if not actually broken. Only fish to eat for over a month? No problem. Because they were very creative in what counted as fish – getting around today’s lockdown rules would have been child’s play to medieval folk. Any animal that seemed at all aquatic was likely to be fair game, if you’ll excuse the pun. Porpoises and otters for example – they spend a lot of time in the water, don’t they?  Of course! So they’re both on the list  of fasting foods. And what about puffins? Yes,  they’re technically birds, but they’re very aquatic. So, you can eat those during the fast. 

Medieval image of a beaver  – look at the tail !

And beavers ? Well, look at their tails, very fish-like. Let’s  consider them as fish.  (The medieval diet included some pretty exotic animals, for our tastes. No modern zoo’s stock would have been safe). 

 Barnacle geese were allowed – because there was a legend that their young hatched from actual barnacle shells – a sea food of course – rather than eggs. Gruesomely, the foetuses of baby  rabbits made the list – because they hadn’t yet become actual animals.

There were some very inventive interpretations. Some monasteries asserted that fasting rules only applied in the refectory (the canteen), so according to some old accounts you would find monks  scoffing in solitude, in nooks and cubby holes aware from the main eating areas. And of course blind eyes were turned. I have previously written about the Abbot who cooly insisted, when a guest found a pig’s ear in the supposedly fast-day fish course, that of course sturgeon have ears…

Pulling a sickie

Also, the sick were exempt from fasting. So, you find in the records of medieval monasteries a sudden suspicious increase of admissions to the infirmary, during times of fasting.  I guess it’s a bit like sickies increasing in the office over a long bank holiday…

Nowadays, the memory of Advent fasting has disappeared. Except for one thing – the tradition of eating fish on Christmas eve. It’s the last vestige of the Advent fast: abstinence from meat before the big Christmas Feast.

Boars in the freezer

Thank goodness the fasting’s over – now on to the  feasting. So, what’s it to be? Goose or turkey?  Christmas feasting has included some weird and wonderful main courses over the centuries – at least for the well-off. 

The earliest traditional centre-piece of the Christmas feast would have been a boar’s head. Serving one at Yule-tide was actually an Anglo Saxon tradition. It was originally a pagan thing: a sacrifice to the goddess Freya, to seek good fortune for the year ahead. (Freya, commemorated in Friday – Freya’s day – in our Saxon-derived days of the week. I wrote about it in my “Easter Bunnies” post, some may remember…)

The Head was decorated with apples and greenery, and served on a gilded platter with great ceremony. And in the strange way, that echo of the past still resounds around these islands. Without us really knowing the source, the old pagan tradition continues today. 

Boars Head Ceremony

Boars head ceremonies still take place, generally at public schools and university colleges. Most are quite modern resurrections of the ancient tradition, but often the Boar’s Head is accompanied by the singing of the ancient Boar’s Head Carol:

The boar’s head in hand bring I, 

Bedeck’d with bays and  rosemary.

And I pray you, my masters, be merry 

Quot estis in convivio   (As many as are in the feast)


Today, the Head itself is often a token made of papier mache or similar. But sometimes it’s the real thing. I did smile to read that, after the Boar’s Head ceremony at Ashville College in Harrogate, theirs is put back into a freezer, until needed  the following  year.

Twelfth Night or what you will

Past English feasters were certainly omnivores. At Ingatestone Hall here in Essex, there are still records for the feast held in 1652 on Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas, for around a hundred people. Here’s the main meat menu:

9 pieces of boiled beef                          6 pieces of roast beef

A haunch and leg of pork                      a whole young pig

 legs of veal -2                                         a loin and breast of veal

rabbits  – 2                                               10 beef pasties (large pies)

mutton pasties -2                                   4 venison pasties

3 geese                                                   2 capons

2 partridges                                           2 woodcock

2 teal                                                      12 larks

These details are from one of my favourite cookery books, The Cookery of England, by Elisabeth Ayrton, and it’s rich with historic detail. She estimates that this meat course alone would allow around 8 lb of meat for each person!  And remember, the fish course would have been a separate menu. That is, if they could face another fish dish, after 40 days of fish fasting.

This meat-fest was, of course, the Christmas fare of the rich. It was a different story for the poor. Although they did eat meat at Christmas, it was likely to be salted, because most of their livestock would have been killed off in the autumn, so as not to have to feed them through the winter. So, salt-pork was probably the  Christmas dinner fare.

Turkey twizzlers

You’ll notice that there was no mention of turkeys in the Ingatestone feast. Strange, since they had been around in England for a hundred years or so, by the time of this feast. Perhaps the folk at Ingatestone Hall out in rural Essex weren’t very adventurous in trying exotic new foods.

There’s actually an early record of a turkey on the menu at a feast for Henry VIII. Shakespeare mentions the birds – in both Twelfth Night, and Henry V. Although it’s fair to say, the Henry V reference is rather an anachronism, as they wouldn’t have been known in England the 14th century. 

Crest of the Strickland Family, St. Mary’s Church, Deerhurst.

The Strickland family from Yorkshire take credit for the earliest introduction of turkeys to England. William Strickland allegedly bought 6 turkeys from native indians on a voyage to the New World, in 1526. The story goes that he bought them back, and sold them in Bristol market for tuppence each. He made a profit, continued the trade, made his fortune and built a stately pile in his native Yorkshire. In fact, the earliest representation of a turkey in England, is a carving of his family crest, which can be seen at his parish church.

Turkeys from Turkey? Or India?

Who knows whether William was the first to bring back these strange birds to sell?  He was probably one of a crowd. Many of the early traders bringing goods back from the New World to England, were actually from the middle east: members of The Levant Trading Company, as it was known. And that’s how a bird from the Americas came to be named after a country in the middle east – it was tagged with the supposed home country of the people who sold them.

In a nice piece of synchronicity, that’s exactly the same logic for the French word for turkey le dinde. It was originally spelled d’Inde:  from India. That’s where the eastern-based  turkey traders in France  originated – or so people thought.

Turkey trot

Gradually, turkey and geese dominated  Christmas fare, and the London markets were supplied with great numbers of birds, bred on the rich, flat wheat-lands of East Anglia. From Georgian times onwards, the birds  walked to London from Norwich, under supervision of course, for the Christmas markets. They started off in mid-August, and rested each night on fields of stubble. The end of their journey was Smithfield in London, the site of London’s meat market, where their inevitable gory end occurred.

To protect their feet for the journey, turkeys were shod in little leather shoes.  Geese on the other hand (or foot) didn’t take so well to footwear. So their feet were dipped in molten tar, and then sand, in order to toughen them up for the long journey of over 100 miles. By late Georgian times, enterprising breeders also sent their flocks to the London markets by stagecoach. (After slaughtering them, of course. Live turkeys in a stagecoach would be just too bizarre). Some transporters charged more for carrying poultry than they did people, over the run-up to Christmas.

Figgy pudding

We are now replete from all that turkey. But we’re not finished yet. How about some Christmas pudding?  The earliest record of such a Christmas dish in England was  figgy pudding.  Made of course, with figs. Here’s a recipe from the 14th century:

Take Almaende blanched; grynde hem and drawe hem up with watr and wyne; quartr figs hole raisons. Cast therto powdor gingr and hony clarified; seeth it wel and salt it, and seve forth.

You’ll see a lot of the components we see in our modern Christmas pud:  alcohol, dried fruit, nuts, spices. In many early recipes, meat was added to the mixture, a bit like the old version of our modern mincemeat. As time went on, the mixture became sweeter still and the meat was omitted. The name was often changed to plum (or plumb) pudding. Not that there were any plums in them. Plum was just the term used for all dried fruits. It started to be cooked in the round, in a pudding cloth, and would be quite recognisable to us.

“The Plumb Pudding in Danger”. Cartoon from the Napoleonic War.

(The 18th century cartoon here shows England and France carving up the globe between them, with the world represented by – a “Plumb Pudding” !)

The scarlet whore of Babylon

Full of indulgent ingredients, it was inevitable that, a few hundred years after that early medieval recipe,  the puritans would take exception to such excesses. During the period of Cromwell’s Commonwealth in the 1650s, Christmas puddings were banned, along with Christmas cake. In fact the latter was described as “the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon”. M & S should think about using that as a strap-line for its puds and cakes: “These are not just Christmas cakes etc. etc”. Who could resist?

The Lord of Misrule

Incidentally, our current custom of placing charms or coins in the Christmas Pudding was a late transfer. Originally,  charms were placed  in the Christmas Cake, not the pudding. But rather than a charm, it was a dried bean that was placed in the cake. Whoever found the bean became the ” Lord or Lady of Misrule”, for the twelve days of the Christmas period. 

Now, this custom is really ancient. It’s believed to be based on the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which  took place over what became our Christmas period. During Saturnalia, chaos and mayhem prevailed, slaves could ape their masters, and if they found the token, might even become the leader of the festivities. Drunken, bad behaviour was tolerated,  even encouraged, until life returned to sanity after the end of partying. 

Hiding in Plain Sight

So, our Christmas dinner is over, and you’re sitting back with a cup or glass of something nice, watching Love Actually again. As you doze off, dream of the strange ghosts of Christmas past:  having  a bit of a fishy fast, before massive feasts on  the big day; Saxons with boars heads, turkeys not from Turkey, walking to London; sweet puddings full of meat; scarlet whores of Babylon,dried beans in cake.

But the past isn’t just  in the food  – it’s in the fun and the feasting and the excesses and the carousing and the getting-together for twelve glorious days. Whether it’s in your households of 6, or your Zoom Christmas Charades ( I’m still trying to figure that one out), the old Saturnalian, Yule, Christmas spirit lives on. Wishing you all a truly happy one.

Saturnalia, by Antoine Callet

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gill levings

    I really enjoyed reading this having spent the evening wrapping gifts – listening to Christmas tunes.

    Thank you for the enjoyable – informative and dare I say fun blogs. I look forward to seeing them in my inbox ‘hiding in plain sight’ a gift to open and enjoy. Often reading in amazement, with a giggle, wry smile and always a ‘goodness I never knew that’

    Thank you for the pleasure your ‘musings and writing give’ always a joy to read. Gill Levings

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