A comment piece for the Guardian
Prepare to unbuckle your belt. On Christmas Day, the average Briton will consume 6,000 calories, the equivalent of almost 5kg of egg fried rice, or 24 baked potatoes. A Christmas dinner main course is only 1,000 calories, but all the extras, puddings and booze tip the scale.
And a good thing too. Though the modern Christmas dinner is a fairly recent composition, feasting at the midwinter solstice is probably as old as civilisation in these islands. And from the Normans to the Tudors, the elements of Christmas dinner barely changed. If you were rich you ate lots of meat, especially peacock and boar. If you were poor you put some scraps of meat into your porridge, perhaps killed and ate a chicken, or used a bit of expensive, treat-day spice.
Frumenty was a sloppy medieval puddle of minced mutton, onions, currants, wines and spices. The food writer Florence White called it “England’s oldest national dish”, and it’s the forerunner of Christmas pudding. Some time around 1550 emerged its cousin, the Twelfth Night cake, one of the earliest spiced cakes. Whoever cooked it baked a single hard bean within it, and the person who received this became King or Queen of the Bean: it was their job to direct the evening’s festivities.
Turkeys reached Britain in the 16th century, and quickly became “Christmas husbandlie fare”, as writer and farmer, Thomas Tusser put it in 1573. Henry VIII is popularly believed to have been the first monarch to eat a Christmas turkey. The Puritans disapproved of the Christmas feast, but by the 18th century people had started to celebrate it again. On Christmas Day 1716, the Prince Regent (later George II) sat down to plum broth with capon, partridges, beef, pork, turkey, woodcock, stag’s tongue, plum pudding, snipe, pheasant, andouilles, brawn and mince pies containing meat.
Pies, in fact, were a vital Christmas food for a long time. It was traditional to bake a rich and long-lasting meat pie to send to your relatives: Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire Christmas pie of 1747 saw pigeon, partridge, chicken, goose and turkey baked into a solid crust.
But the Victorians, especially Charles Dickens, cemented Christmas dinner in the modern form. The closing pages of A Christmas Carol, with their child-sized turkey and flaming pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball”, display not only a fuzzy Victorian sentimentality but a belief in the virtue of feasting as an expression of love. Dinner at Fred’s: “Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!”