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.

Why We Exchange Gifts: a peep into the gift-horse’s mouth

By Trish Nicholson
Guest Post

Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift.    Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.

But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.

Author Bio:
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.

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Where the oceans meet

san-juan-oceans

By Nora Vasconcelos

Puerto Rico lays where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea intersect. This archipelago contains some of the most amazing landscapes any traveller can see, as well as rich architecture; centuries of history; Spanish, French and Caribbean culinary influences, and beautiful beaches.

All of this makes of Puerto Rico a really good destination for turists who want to relax and wander around historical sites.

Curious about it? This week, my good friend and mystery author, Jane Isaac, kindly published a guest post I wrote about lovely Puerto Rico.

You can read it here: (Puerto Rico: Where the oceans meet)

Jane is also launching soon her fourth book: Beneath the Ashes, which is ready for pre-order now. Don’t miss the chance to discover what new mysteryes DI Will Jackman will be called to investigate!

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Writing a historic western with broad appeal

By Nora Vasconcelos

Headshot_Charli_MillsCharli Mills loves riding horses the same as she loves writing stories. As she describes herself, she is “a born buckaroo, wrangling words”, and currently she is building a literary community at Carrot Ranch with weekly Flash Fiction Challenges open to all writers.

“Like most passionate writers, I’ve been writing since I was young. My 7th-grade teacher assigned writing stories (using the week’s spelling words) and I was hooked. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 before I went to college and earned a BA in literary writing.”, Charli remembers.

“Back in the 1990s, if you seriously wanted to write fiction you either had to be connected, brilliant or pursuing an MFA. With three children to raise, I turned to a career in marketing communications which allowed me to develop my freelance writing. Yet, I yearned for fiction. I’m a storyteller at heart. I dabbled with writers groups and contests and started numerous novels that fizzled before completion. When life took an unexpected hard turn, I decided it was time to finish at least one novel.” (Her first novel, “Miracle of Ducks” is currently seeking representation)

Over two decades, Charli’s worked in freelancing, publications, sales, marketing, editing and speaking. Her work has been published in magazines, anthologies, books and online. In 2012 she moved back west to follow stories and sunsets, working on her writing. As part of her motivation to finish her manuscripts, Charli decided to be part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

“In 2012 I used NaNoWriMo to complete all the gaps I had in my book in progress. After numerous revisions and professional edits, my 2012 manuscript is ready to seek a publishing home. In 2013 I wondered if I could write a first draft in 30 days from start to finish. I did. That manuscript needs more work, research and revision but it is material I wouldn’t have without NaNoWriMo. This year, I developed an idea from writing flash. I researched all summer and wrote weekly flash fiction to blend the history with my characters and ideas. In October I made my first-ever research trip! NaNoWriMo 2014 was a chance to pull it all together.

Rock Creek Mock-Up

– Once you committed yourself to this challenge, how difficult was it for you to keep going with it?
I’m the sort of person who perseveres. Even when I’m feeling low or lost, I keep pecking at the keys until I find my way. This book industry can be discouraging to emerging authors. That’s another reason why I appreciate NaNoWriMo; it is a challenge that helps me focus on my commitment and not the distractors. Every year, I improve. Every year, I meet other writers that have something to share with me. It keeps me going the rest of the year when I have to work on revision.

– Which was the toughest part of achieving your goal and how did you managed to cope with the difficult times?
This year was particularly difficult because I’ve focused more on fiction than freelancing which is a financial balance that can easily become a struggle. When my husband lost his job, I had a choice: continue, or stop and pick up some clients. I continued on while also putting out feelers for possible gigs. Mentally this was taxing for me and I felt near hopeless at the beginning of the month. I had also committed to encouraging others during this process, and I kept to it even when it was tough. The reward was the encouragement other writers gave in return.

– What is your manuscript about?
Rock Creek” is the story of one of the west’s most disputed historic gunfights. In July of 1861 James Butler Hickok (not yet known as “Wild Bill”) gunned down the notorious McCanles Gang at a Pony Express relay station in Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. There was no gang, but historians continue to argue why the shooting of three men took place.

My book explores and fictionalizes the women of Rock Creek in order to understand what happened that day. It looks at a surface event through the deeper gaze of these women that history has overlooked. I hope it surprises historians and offers fresh insight. “Rock Creek” is an historic western with broad appeal.

– Your book involves some traveling experiences, can you give me more details about them?
Rock Creek Station is now an historic state park. The fact that Wild Bill Hickok lived there and shot three men has spared the station from demise. Following an historic photograph from 1860 and an archaeological dig in the 1980s, the park has rebuilt both the west and east stations.

I really wanted to see the physical recreation and understand the positions each of my characters had taken in real life. I wanted to see the place as they saw it and absorb the feeling of the story by standing in the existing wagon ruts. I found a rental suite in Fairbury, which is the nearest town since I was taking family along with me on this journey.

My daughter and I both flew into Kansas City. She is a radio journalist and brought along her recording equipment to tell the story of discovery. We talked with locals, visited the library and found David McCanles’s grave. I cried when I discovered his wife was buried next to him. She is one of my characters and I feel her pain. Not only did she lose her husband and raise their five children as a widow on the frontier, but she lost her connections to family back home in North Carolina because of the Civil War. It’s a deeper story when you listen to the women.

The trip allowed me to experience the lonely expanse of the prairie first-hand, and enjoy a bottle of Nebraska wine!

– Now that the NaNoWriMo challenge has ended for this year, what’s next for you and for your manuscript?

I’m finishing up the first draft that will be 75,000 words or more. Then I’ll re-plot the scenes to make sure I have a solid three-act structure. Next I’ll list new research questions for historians, museum experts and a select few beta-readers who will help refine the historical accuracy. That will result in a better-informed revision.

After that, I’ll pass it off to my editor for an initial assessment. Next I’ll revise for readability and then I’ll send it off to my editor for copy-edits. I have a few specific publishers to explore. Because I’ve learned so much about this event, place, people and time, I’m also planning to promote the book by writing freelance articles for special interest magazines. However, I would love to travel one more time! My story begins in North Carolina and I’d love to complete the research there in person.

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