Charles Dickens and the birth of the classic English Christmas dinner

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Hand colored etching by John Leech

Joan Fitzpatrick, Loughborough University

Charles Dickens popularised the traditional, English Christmas in 1843 in his novel A Christmas Carol, when Bob Cratchit and his family sit down on Christmas Day to eat a dinner of goose with mashed potatoes and apple sauce accompanied by sage and onion stuffing and followed by Christmas pudding.

It’s a vision that is watched – unseen by the Cratchits – by a fast-repenting Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present who is showing the miser the error of his ways.

Duly chastened by his supernatural experience, the newly festive Scrooge sends over, on Christmas morning, a turkey that is “twice the size of Tiny Tim” – and will certainly feed more people than the goose. This set the seal for the popular English Christmas meal. But what did people eat at Christmas time before goose and turkey?

A time of gifts

In the anonymous late 14th-century poem Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is served “many delicacies” on Christmas Day in the castle of Sir Bertilak, but no meat in the meal he eats on Christmas Eve, which was a time for fasting.

During the medieval period it was traditional in wealthier households for a boar’s head to take pride of place at the centre of the festive table – a tradition alluded to when Sir Bertilak presents Gawain with the head and flesh of the boar he has killed. A 15th-century carol, The Boar’s Head, celebrates the dish this:

Chief service in all this land
Wheresoever it may be found,
Served up with mustard.

Of course the poor would have eaten what they could get, including scraps from their master’s table if they had access to them.

Good bread and good drink

For the Elizabethans, no specific food was special during Christmas time. In Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573), Thomas Tusser recommended: “Good bread and good drink”. Meat was the dominant foodstuff:

Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well dressed.

Potatoes – a product of the New World, like the turkey – were not a regular feature of feasts until the middle of the 17th century. Even then they remained expensive – which is why bread and pies dominate in descriptions of Christmas foodstuffs before Dickens. Vegetables are rare in descriptions of early feasts, and do not feature in the Cratchit Christmas dinner. The Brussels sprout – a member of the cabbage family, specially developed by 16th-century Belgian farmers – may have become a staple of the modern Christmas dinner in part due to fashion and an increasing awareness of nutrition, and the fact that cabbage had a reputation since ancient times of preventing drunkenness.

Robert Herrick’s Ceremonies for Christmas (1648) urges “merry, merry boys” to bring in the Christmas log and to consume strong beer and white bread “while the meat is a-shredding / For the rare mince-pie”. The yule log would have been lit on Christmas Eve; the modern confection of sponge and chocolate is a nod towards this old tradition. On the contrary, mince pies used to be savoury – in Hannah Woolley’s popular cookbook of the time, The Queen-Like Closet (1670), there is a recipe for “good minced pies” containing veal. Puddings too were often savoury, similar to haggis – although it is the sweet plum pudding that would become the traditional Christmas pud.

Twelfth night

Yet for the Elizabethans, and subsequent generations too, Twelfth Night (January 6) rather than Christmas Day was the main focus of revelry during the Christmas season. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (first performed around 1602) Sir Toby Belch evokes the historical figure of the Lord of Misrule. When Sir Toby mocks Malvolio’s puritanism with “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” he anticipates the banning of such food during the English Commonwealth of 1649 to 1660.

Herrick’s poem Twelfth Night, or King and Queen (1648) describes the Twelfth Night Cake – a spiced fruit cake containing a bean and a pea that represents the king and queen with the recipients of each being crowned king and queen for the night. Herrick’s “bowl full of gentle lamb’s wool” (hot ale, roasted apple pulp, and spices) is used to wassail (toast) the pretend king and queen.

Samuel Pepys makes several references to Twelfth Night Cake in his diary, including an entry for January 6 1668 where he describes “an excellent cake” that cost him nearly 20 shillings – about one day’s salary from his job as Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Board.

Twelfth Night remained the focus of festivities during the Regency period and Jane Austen would have been familiar with the eponymous cake. She also mentions Christmas in her novels but does not specify the Christmas Day meal. In Emma, there is a Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls, the home of the Westons, where saddle of mutton is served, and in Persuasion, a visit to the Musgroves during the Christmas holidays reveals tables “bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies”. Brawn here indicates a dish of meat from the head of a pig set in its own jelly and so harks back to the boar’s head from medieval times.

The closest most of us get to Boar’s Head these days is likely to be a pub whose name commemorates it. So we can largely thank Charles Dickens, who was himself very fond of turkey, for the tradition of the Christmas Dinner turkey – a gift from the newly reformed Scrooge, which now forms the centrepiece of most Christmas tables.The Conversation

Joan Fitzpatrick, Senior Lecturer in English (Specialism: Renaissance Scholar), Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

12 Books of Christmas

Christmas by NVS

By Nora Vasconcelos

Now that the Holiday season is around the corner I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite Christmas stories, and here they are:

1) Fallen Angel, by Don J. Snyder. Christmas time in a cottage called Serenity is the best place to help Terry McQuinn heal old emotional wounds. At the same time, he finds himself in this places that he had almost forgot as time passed by, the same as the relationship with his father. The cold weather and the snow accompany him, unaware that some new visitors to Serenity will change his life forever.

2) Silver Bells, by Luanne Rice. This book tells the story of Christopher Byrne and his son, who find the path back to happiness and family love thanks to a rough time spent in New York city, and the help of Catherine Tierney, who unexpectedly becomes a key element for all of them to finally be able to have a happy Christmas.

3) The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl. Not exactly a Christmas story, but, as part of the story occurs in winter and it places the reader in the time when Charles Dickens toured around the East Cost of the U.S, I always relate this book to the Holidays season.

4) Sherlock Holmes: A Case at Christmas and Other New Adventures, by N.M. Scott. For me good mysteries are always welcome, and who else that Sherlock Holmes himself to flavour a little bit the season. In this collection of stories, Scott retakes the characters created by Conan Doyle to bring many more enjoyable adventures, placing some of them during the holidays.

5) Murder never takes a holiday, by Donald Bain. As part of the series of books based on the TV series Murder She Wrote, this book features two stories. In the first one, A little Yuletide Murder, Bain takes the main character, Jessica Fletcher, to her hometown, Cabot Cove, where the mystery writers hopes to spend a joyful Christmas. However, as always it happens to Mrs. Fletcher, a murder comes on her way to prevent her to sit down and relax. The second story, Manhattans and Murder, places Mrs. Fletcher in New York city, where she’s determined to solve another mystery that’s has happened right in the middle of her book tour.

6) ‘Tis the Season, by Ann M. Martin. This children’s story touches the heart of everyone who reads it as it tells the story of little Flora and Ruby, who had recently lost their parents and are trying hard to fit themselves in a town where Christmas is all around.

7) and 8) Mrs. Miracle and Call me Mrs. Miracle, by Debbie Macomber, are two books in which Mrs. Merkle, often called Mrs. Miracle, goes around different places finding ingenious ways to solve those little problems that people around her face, exactly those little problems that seem impossible to be solved and that once they are solve, bring love, happiness and a very merry happy Christmas to everyone.

9) Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham. Imagine all what can go wrong during this time. Add then the idea of skipping the holiday. The result: A complete disaster. One that Luther and Nora Krank won’t be able to solve unless they accept some help from whom they less expect it.

10) Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penlzer, owner of the Mysterious bookshop in New York City. This book compiles mystery short stories placed during Christmas time, written specially for the Bookshop by famous authors such as Anne Perry, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake.

11) A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Of course this good old classic can be never missed during the celebrations. I’ve read and re read this story over and over, and I never get enough of it. I never get tired of going through its pages while I allow myself to get lost in the story as if I were a silent witness of what’s happening to Mr. Scrooge during that ghostly night destined to save his soul.

12) A Rumpole Christmas, by John Mortimer. If Christmas time is not really your thing, you can always take revenge of it by reading the adventures and misfortunes of Horace Rumpole, a moody character, who experiences all kind of situations during the Holiday Season while trying to make the least of this joyful time.

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Simply… Thankful

The essence of life.
Anyone could wonder why I’ve chosen this photo among so many to represent with an image the world Thankful.

The answer comes from a deep feeling of completion that I got while standing on this amazing place, over there at the North of Ireland, when I had the chance the walk for about 3 km along the shore of the tip of the island only to see the magnificence of this rock formations that have become the meeting point between the earth with the sea waters for hundreds of years.

So, now, with this image, I have the chance to put together in this post three of my strongest passions in life: traveling, writing and reading.

Although I didn’t physically have a book with me that day on the shore, books are always with me, both in paper and in my head. So, now that I’m thinking about how thankful I’m for all the wonderful things that these three passions have given to my life, I thought I’d also add to this post the titles of some of the books I’ve year and for which I’m absolutely thankful for.

So, from the list of my dearest books, I have to start with two stories that marked my childhood: One and Thousand One Nights, The Travels of Marco Polo and The Miser by Moliere.

While growing up, I added some other titles to my top list, such as the works of Oscar Wilde; Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne; Love in the Time of Colera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, and the works of Charles Dickens.

Recently I’ve increased my list of dearest books with The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov; The last Dickens by Matthew Pearl; Final Theory by Mark Alpert; The Broker by John Grisham, and the collection of books written by Debbie Macomber around Blossom Street.

It’s hard to keep me from prolonging this list, but the books that I’ve mentioned have giving me so many moments of reflexion and enjoyment, that it’s something to be thankful for.

As for my trips, I have to say that there’s not a single one for which I’m not absolutely thankful and amazed for.

Cheers!

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In Dickens times

When this year started, a book came into my hands. It was The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl.

The novel caught my attention right away when I first saw it at the book store. Of course, I couldn’t pass by the shelf without taking this book into my shopping basket.

Then, when I read the first pages I didn’t want to stop reading it. The passages describing the old Boston, took my mind immidiately to this wonderful city of which I’m totally fond of.

The mystery of what it would happen once the publishers in America undertook the task of publishing the last work ever written by Charles Dickens, and the sober taste of England, kept me going, creating all sort of images in my mind as the novel advanced.

Throughout the passages of the book I could almost feel that I was right there, side by side with the great Dickens, which I’ve always admired, but who I mainly knew through his work and some biographies, but it was this novel which gave me the chance to see a very lively Dickens, in the times when he was a celebrity and traveled around some American cities, while trying to keep up with his writing.

Suspense, adventure and literature accompany the English author along this novel that recreates in an amazing way those old times in the 19th century, when the publishing houses had to wait for the ships to come to the harbour to get their manuscripts, and the authors got into the teathers to read their work among frenetic fans who could do anything in order to be a part, even if for a short moment, of their favorite author’s world.

From the begining to the end, I absolutely loved this book! 😀

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