“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of the grave about you, whatever you are!”
—Scrooge, to Marley’s Ghost, in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
One of the motifs that run throughout A Christmas Carol is celebration and food. Almost every happy occurrence in the book is connected to festive food and drink. From the mulled wine at Fezziwig’s party to the jolly feast that accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Present, the tastes and smells of the holidays pervade this enduring classic.
Since modern readers may be unfamiliar with the origins of some of these traditional holiday treats, here are some explanations courtesy of The Oxford Companion to Food, 2nd Edition, edited by Tom Jaine and the late Alan Davidson.
The traditional Christmas Pudding recipe has been more or less established since the 19th century. Usual ingredients are: suet; brown sugar; raisins; sultanas; currants; candied peel; breadcrumbs; eggs; spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves; and alcohol (e.g. stout, rum, brandy). Optional ingredients include flour, fresh orange or lemon peel, grated carrot or apple, almonds. The result is a remarkably solid pudding which as to be boiled for many hours then preferably left to mature for up to a year and reboiled on the day. The pudding is traditionally served with rum or brandy butter made from butter , sugar, and spirit. It is topped with a sprig of holly and set alight with rum or another spirit. This part of the tradition is still widely observed, but recipes for the pudding itself have been evolving in the direction of something lighter and more digestible.
Even before Christmas Pudding had attained its modern form, its consumption on Christmas Day had
been banned by Oliver Cromwell. This was not simply a sign of his Puritan attitudes. The Christian Church everywhere was conscious that Christmas was merely a veneer of the old Celtic winter solstice festival.
The Christmas Goose has a special place in the gastronomic calendars of other European countries and has also been a favorite bird for the Christmas table, whether roasted whole or prepared in pies in advance. There used to be in England an established pattern whereby geese were fattened and eaten twice a year, at Michaelmas (the Feast of St. Michael, in late September), when they were plump from eating stubble, and the ‘green’ goose around Whitsuntide (in early summer).
Virtually all Christian countries or communities provide for a main meal on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, which in turn incorporates a main dish which is symbolic of Christmas. It was only in the 19th century that the turkey began to replace the goose, and there are signs that the reverse process may be underway.
Want to learn more? Check out the other Oxford Companion to Food and Oxford Companion to Wine posts.