The traditional renaissance feast for the wealthy on Christmas Day was also a boar’s head often festooned with bay leaves and rosemary. The general populace, whilst not being able to afford a whole head, would have a large joint of pork, with side dishes of pig’s ears and trotters or brawn. Some very wealthy households served the new meat – turkey – on Christmas Day, but it was not thought to be as splendid a spectacle as a whole boar’s head brought in by two servants on a huge platter.
In much the same way as we used to put coins into our Christmas puddings, the Elizabethans would put a dried bean into the Twelfth Night cake (probably a ginger cake). The lucky person who found the bean would become King or Queen Bean for the night. He or she was then in charge of the evening’s entertainment.
Wassailing was another tradition that the highest and lowest in the land enjoyed. It was originally said to be a winter fertility ritual to pay homage to the fruit trees and to drink their health in the hope that they would provide a good crop the following year. Depending on which part of the country you lived in, the basis of the drink could be cider, ale or beer. One thing common to all recipes was that it was sweet, spiced and hot.
Before the English Civil War, the twelve days of Christmas (from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night – 6th January) were usually celebrated in full but Cromwell and the Puritans reigned back the nation’s festivities to Christmas Day only while many dissenters chose not to celebrate even the 25th December.
Over more recent centuries, a large bird or joint of meat has replaced the boar’s head with Plum Potage giving way to Plum Pudding (Christmas Pudding) as a desert.
The recipes below give a small sample of what might have been prepared for Christmas gatherings over the centuries. Why not try some of them yourself? All recipes are from the Tasting the Past series.
Stuffed Chicken Festive Style (A Norman Recipe)
This recipe calls for the whole chicken – with head, feet and all – to be taken out of its skin, stuffed and made to look like a bird again. It is then painted with bright colours to make it look very unnatural.
1 chicken with head and feet still attached (it would be best to get your butcher to do this), 500 g cooked pork or chicken, finely minced, 6 eggs, 150 g chestnuts, 150 g breadcrumbs, 150 g cream cheese, ½ tsp ginger, 1 tsp savoury herb, 1 tsp cumin, 10 saffron threads, 1 tsp salt, 3 egg yolks, yellow and red food colouring
Parsnip, Carrot and Apple Fritters (Medieval)
500 g flour, 1 egg, 300 ml beer, 1 parsnip, 2 carrots, 6 cooking apples
Grand Mince Pie (Renaissance)
450 g minced beef, 600 g suet, 350 g currants, 2 eating apples, grated, ½ tsp nutmeg, ½ tsp cloves, 1 tsp cinnamon, 225 g sugar, 225 g chopped dates, 2 oranges, 1 tsp caraway seeds
Hot water pastry
Hot Water Crust Pastry
450 g plain flour, 1 tsp salt, 200 g lard, 225 ml water and milk, mixed in equal quantities
Roast and Stewed Duck (Civil War)
1 duck, 600 ml claret, 2 onions, A bunch of mixed herbs (thyme, marjoram, parsley, garlic, chives), 25 g whole peppercorns
Duke of Buckingham’s Pudding with Sherry Sauce (Georgian)
450 g suet, 125 g big raisins chopped, 2 eggs, 1 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp ginger, 125 g flour, 50 g sugar
Sauce: 75 g melted butter, 3 tbsp sherry, 3 tbsp sugar
Vegetable Plum Pudding (Victorian)
To show the discrepancy between social classes in Victorian Britain, here is a recipe from Eliza Acton’s book for poor people’s Christmas pudding. This recipe is said to have been enough to feed 16 people.
450 g boiled and mashed potatoes, 225 g boiled and mashed carrots, 450 g flour, 225 g suet, 350 g sugar, 450 g currants, 450 g raisins, 2 tsp nutmeg, 2 tsp mixed spice, ½ tsp salt, 2 eggs, 1 glass of either brandy, sherry or stout
By Jacqui Wood