Jolly Holly Traditional Festive Foods

by Tammera J. Karr, PD

As with most, our family has traditional holiday foods we look forward to, on Christmas Eve, my mother would serve oyster stew, and on new year’s it was black-eyed peas and ham for good luck. Others in my family may have made tamales like my great aunt, using her mother’s recipes. All of us have foods that inspire warm memories or tears; it is food that invokes memories through taste, smell and color. Without a doubt, we are proud Americans, but we also use the holidays to remember who came before us and what gifts they brought with them that flavor the season.


The cake-like consistency of gingerbread bears little resemblance to bread, it was originally, in the thirteenth century, gingerbread, a word borrowed from Old French which meant ‘preserved ginger.’ But by the mid-fourteenth century,…-bread had begun to replace -bras, and it was only a matter of time before sense followed form. (sorry I can’t help but laugh as I know a few of you will have way to much fun with the bras …hohoho) One of the earliest known recipes comes from the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, and directs gingerbread be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices.

“…most early American cookies were referred to as “cakes,” and gingerbread was assumed to be a form of cookie, as in Lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie made with honey…Of all the Christmas pastries, the gingerbread cookie was the most loved by early American children. In American cookery, there are two distinct families of gingerbread cookies, the honey-based gingerbreads of Middle European origin–mostly Germany–and the molasses shortbreads that developed in England or Scotland. The other developed in the late seventeenth century, using molasses as a substitute for honey…The Germans in this country were the best honey cake bakers–they called the cookies Lebkuchen.”


According to food historians, mincemeat pie dates back to Medieval times. In the Middle Ages and into Renaissance times and beyond it was commonplace to spice up or eke out meat with dried fruit, and it seems likely that the earliest mince pies contained a generous measure of such raisins and currants. The recipe did, indeed, include meat as did the mincemeat I grew up with; my mother would only use venison and suet; today I leave out the suet and dried fruit and use thickened apple juice, sliced apples, blueberries, and currents. It also often contained dried fruits, sugar, and spices, as was the tradition of the day. The distinction between mincemeat and mince was drawn in the mid-nineteenth century when meat began disappearing from the recipe, leaving the fruit, nut, sugar, spice, brandy and suet product we know today.

Oyster Stew

Fish (including shellfish) plays a critical role throughout the Christian calendar. “Meatless” day/periods were proscribed from ancient times forward for practical reasons: they regulated small early meat supplies and unified church members. For traditional Catholics in most countries, Christmas Eve, as with Lent, features fish. In Italy, the traditional Christmas Eve table features Seven Fishes. Baccala (salt cod).  Oyster Stew is part of the Irish Christmas Eve tradition. Oyster dishes of all sorts are regularly found on French tables, so it is conceivable that oyster stew is a French tradition also with Northern French cuisine features many creamy, butter soups and stews. Until recently (last half of the 20th century forwards), oysters were commonly consumed, especially by people living close to ocean shores.

On Christmas Eve, many ethnic cultures enjoy seafood to save their appetites for Christmas Day dinner, according to food historian John Mariani. But oyster stew also is uniquely Celtic because it is a holiday connection to the old country — an Irish-American adaptation of a traditional Christmas Eve stew that was made in Ireland with a chewy Atlantic fish called ling. The ling was stewed with milk (or buttermilk), parsley, salt, and pepper because it was tough. It was similar in texture and flavor to the prized oysters that were an autumn delicacy of the Irish gentry.

When the Irish began flocking to North America during the Great Potato Famine, during the 1840s and 1850s, they couldn’t find ling in American fish markets. So they picked oysters to remind them of their families and Ireland on Christmas Eve. Americans, in general, were “oyster mad” in the 1800s, according to Mariani. Oysters were plentiful and were a big part of urban life, especially in East Coast cities where hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants settled.


The name eggnog and recipes for it first appear in print in the 17th century. Food historians confirm English recipes for posset (esp. sack posset) were very similar to later eggnog a popular and accepted American term to denote an old traditional English holiday beverage. “By the mid-1760s patrons were drinking eggnog, juleps, sling, and sanger in addition to the punch and toddy already available.”

In 1796, “Rich and creamy dessert drinks, such as eggnog and syllabub, reflect the English heritage in America, especially in the South. In England, posset was a hot drink in which the white and yolk of eggs were whipped with ale, cider, or wine. Americans adapted English recipes to produce a variety of milk-based drinks that combined rum, brandy, or whiskey with cream. The first written reference to eggnog was an account of a February 1796 breakfast at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1839 American cookbooks included recipes for cold eggnogs of cream, sugar, and eggs combined with brandy, rum, bourbon, or sherry, sprinkled with nutmeg. Southerners enjoyed a mix of peach brandy, rum, and whiskey.”

The earliest reference to eggnog cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1825. The beverage is defined as “A drink in which the white and yolk of eggs are stirred up with hot beer, wine, or spirits.”

And since I am in Americas largest Irish community while writing this I bid you ‘Nollaig faoi shéan is faoi shonas duit.’

A prosperous and Happy Christmas season to You.


Our Journey With Food Cookery Book



Now Available for the holidays through and digital through

Excerpt from Our Journey with Food Cookery Book by Tammera Karr

An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 142)
The Christmas Cook, William Woys Weaver [Harper Perennial:New York] 1990(p. 102-4)
A Very Merry Christmas to all and Blessings in the New Year
An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 214)