by Tammera J. Karr, PhD
As December 21st approaches we see the years shortest day pass, for those with SAD-seasonal affective disorder it means every day following the winter solstice will be a little longer and that spring is only weeks away. Yes I’m an optimist, ignoring the long days of fog, rain and gray. Gardeners are expecting their seed catalogs to start appearing in the mail, with the same anticipation of children waiting for the Sears Christmas catalog from a few years ago. Christmas is very much about hope, whether viewed from ancient pagan eyes or those of today. Hope that 2012 will be better than 2011, hope for our country, families and businesses.
Among the pagan traditions that have become part of Christmas is burning the yule log. This custom springs from many different cultures, but in all of them its significance seems to lie in the iul or “wheel” of the year. The Druids would bless a log and keep it burning for 12 days during the winter solstice – hence the 12 days of christmas; part of the log was kept for the following year, when it would be used to light the new yule log. For the Vikings, the yule log was an integral part of their celebration of the solstice, the julfest; on the log they would carve runes representing unwanted traits (such as ill fortune or poor honor) that they wanted the gods to take from them.
So the shortest day gained importance, and fires were lit, and light was used to encourage the year to turn, the village Elders would watch, to see if the fire had turned the tide of darkness. This would be visible by the 25th, and a huge feast would be eaten to celebrate the success. So well before Christianity, this time of year was celebrated by feasting. And the early Christian church adopted the existing Festival (in AD300s) to assist in converting people to Christianity. The original recyclers.
The ever-present threat of hunger was triumphantly overcome with a feast, all manner of food would be served at Christmas. The most popular main course was goose, but many other meats were also served. Turkey was first brought to Europe from the Americas around 1520, its earliest known consumption in England is 1541, and because it was inexpensive and quick to fatten, it rose in popularity as a Christmas feast food.
Humble pie was made from the “humbles” of a deer — the heart, liver, brains and so forth. While the lords and ladies ate the choice cuts, the servants baked the humbles into a pie, which of course made the meat go further. This appears to be the origin of the phrase, “to eat humble pie.” By the seventeenth century Humble Pie had become a trademark Christmas food, as evidenced when it was outlawed along with other Christmas traditions by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan government.
But prior to that, a favorite Christmas dish was brawn. Brawn was considered to be a tasty delicacy and made with more than just the brains of animals like sheep and pig. We aren’t used to eating offal nowadays, but it was commonplace in the past, partly because it was cheap, and also because it tasted good. So brawn is essentially the head of the animal boiled until the meat falls from the bone, than mixed with the poached brain, onions and other vegetables, preserved in jelly or aspic, or even broth. Brawn was a usual part of the Christmas feast right up until Victorian times.
The Christmas pudding of Victorian and modern times evolved from the medieval dish of frumenty — a spicy, wheat-based dessert. Many other desserts were made as welcome treats for children and adults alike.
Because Christmas became such an important feast, every luxury item was saved for it, and seasonal food used as well. Luxuries such as sugar cones, and imported dried fruits, were carefully save, and seasonal items such as nuts available during the Autumn were also harvested and stored for the feast. The finest drinks, such as wine and brandy, were kept aside for Christmas.
Many of these items were used for the pudding and the cake. The pudding was stuffed with dried fruit and the peel or citrus fruits – the latter of which was made when citrus fruits became available. Both pudding and cake traditionally include the addition of brandy, a very expensive item. To make the pudding more spectacular as it arrived at the table, brandy would be poured over it and set alight. The brandy would evaporate off fairly quickly, but it was also a way of demonstrating that no expense had been spared.
It is also traditional that there is a sprig of holly in the top of the pudding as it is served. This idea pre-dates the pudding itself. Evergreen plants were brought into the house to remind everyone of the spring to come and showed that there was still life, even in the depths of winter.
Many of these traditions hark back to the days when the whole festival was about encouraging the light to return. The flaming brandy on the cake, the tinsel, the lights in the tree. One delightful story about the origin of tinsel regards the Holy Family, who, fleeing from Herod, hid in a cave. A spider worked through the night, spinning a web across the entrance of the cave, so that Herod’s soldiers assumed that no one could be in there, and left the cave alone. That holy spider web was turned into silver, and our modern tinsel represents it.
May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door, and happiness be guided to your home by the light of Christmas.