Traditional holiday foods and their origins

Terry RogersCulture, Headlines, Milford Headline Story

Gingerbread houses are one of the traditional foods found during the holiday season

Have you ever wondered why roasted chestnuts, cookies, eggnog and other foods are popular during the holiday season? Many of these traditional foods are the highlight of the holidays for some with most only available between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Much of the reason for that is how the tradition began in the first place.

Roasted poultry is often eaten for holidays, including turkey and goose. Before farm-raised poultry and grocery stores became commonplace, families either raised their own meat or hunted for it on their land. Goose became popular as they only laid eggs seasonally while chickens provided eggs almost daily. Before the turkey took over as the favorite on Thanksgiving and Christmas, geese were the most popular. Turkeys grew in popularity as commercial farms grew more prevalent. They were cheaper to raise than other poultry and were born in the spring. This meant they were the perfect size by the time the holidays arrived. This made them especially popular among the working class.

In some households, Christmas dinner includes ham, a holdover from when a boar’s head adorned wealthy tables during Tudor England. In working class households, a Yule ham took the place of the boar’s head and it is still a cornerstone of many Christmas dinners.

Sweets are another staple in households during the holiday. In Italy, panettone is a very popular dish. It is a yeast bread filled with dried fruit that is very popular during the holiday season. Plum pudding began when a Roman Catholic Church decided to make a 13-ingredient pudding to represent Christ and the apostles. On the Sunday before the Advent season, families make the pudding by stirring the batter from east to west to represent the journey of the wise men.

Fruitcake is another popular baked good during the holidays and this dessert has roots in the Middle Ages. Dried fruits and sugar were expensive, so using them in large quantities was saved for a special occasion. Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, fruitcake was a popular option for wedding cake. Fruitcake usually consists of dried or candied fruit as well as liquor or wine. Mincemeat originated as a way to stretch the meat supply. Over time, the amount of meat in mincemeat has been reduced significantly, but in the 16th century, mine pies were a British Christmas specialty.

The 17th century is when eggnog got its start as a milk and wine based punch. Nogs were often used for special occasions with glasses raised to toast the health of anyone who partook. As for chestnuts, it is unclear why they became a Christmas tradition as they were plentiful in the United States. There is a legend that on the Feast of St. Martin, the poor were given chestnuts for sustenance which may have created the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” tradition.

Finally, the gingerbread house is steeped in holiday tradition. Gingerbread has often been popular at Christmas, especially during the Victorian era. After the publication of “Hansel and Gretel” by the Grimm Brothers, gingerbread houses grew in popularity. During the 17th century, only professional bakers could make gingerbread all year, but during Christmas and Easter, anyone was allowed to bake it which may be why gingerbread men and houses grew popular.



Share this Post