Christmas traditions might vary from family to family, but you generally know what to expect from your dinner: big roast, usually turkey, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies, but was this always the case?
We’ve taken a trip through time to find out what Christmas dinner looked like throughout history.

Christmas in prehistory

Yes, you’re right to be sceptical about this one, after all, this was a time before Christianity so obviously, Christmas dinner would be very different to what it is now. What wasn’t so different though was the feasting and the celebrating – you see, the Neolithic people did celebrate a mid-winter festival and the solstice and archaeological digs near Stonehenge have uncovered evidence of these feasts. Historians have discovered that around the solstice, communities would come together for a big feast involving spit roasted pigs, meaty stews and fruits and nuts for afters.

Christmas during the Roman occupation

The Romans brought Christianity to Britain, so you might think that celebrating Christmas originated with them, but actually, the Romans dedicated their mid winter festivities to their god, Saturn.

Saturnalia was a week long celebration, usually starting on 17th December, that consisted of parties that would involve everyone, even slaves. During the festival, there would be a huge feast, so big it could last several days, an exchange of gifts and families coming together to play games. Everyone, even slaves, were encouraged to wear colourful robes and let loose – gambling was a big activity at this time of year too.

Christmas in medieval times

In medieval England, both monasteries, royalty and every day people feasted like kings. By this time, Christmas was celebrated with extravagant dishes including whole boar’s heads and spit roasted peacocks served whole. Traditionally, the more meat you had the better off you were and pies and bread were popular parts of the meal. One dish was a trencher, a loaf of bread that had been hollowed out and filled with stew.

Monks in particular ate well at this time of year, some of them racking up to 7000 calories over the Christmas period! It was a stark contrast between what they would usually eat, which was simple and bland. At Christmas they would serve joints of beef, pork and venison, cooked in their own kitchen and eaten in a special dining hall. They really did take to the need to eat, drink and be merry!

Christmas in Tudor times

Christmas feasts became truly extravagant during the Tudor reign. By this time, it wasn’t just the religious communities that had luxury meals, especially if you were part of the royal court.

Menus consisted of beef, venison, swan, peacock, woodcocks, badger and wildboar. Turkey started to appear on the menu during this time but they were very expensive and were seen as a bit of a delicacy. One of the most popular dishes was a Christmas Pie, which consisted of partridge, wrapped in chicken, wrapped in goose, wrapped in turkey and covered in pastry – pies were a big part of dining during this era. The main dessert was a Twelfth Night Cake – a fruit cake with a coin hidden inside, which was an early precursor to Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Whoever finds the coin would become the leader of the celebration!

Christmas in Georgian times

Twelfth Night Cake remained popular into the Georgian era, though by this time it was as decorative and extravagant as their monarchs! They began to be decorated with sugar creations and icing, becoming much more like the Christmas cakes of today. The menu for a Georgian Christmas dinner varied depending on how wealthy you were, the rich would have a lot of meat, mostly beef or venison with poultry on the side, turkey being a popular choice for those that could afford it. Those who were less wealthy would have less meat and would top up their meal with vegetables. Other popular dishes included turtle soup and plum puddings, along with a type of porridge made with almonds that was served with meat.

Christmas in Victorian times

It is often said that it was the Victorians that created the Christmas we know now and while it is true that Prince Albert influenced a lot of our traditions, like having a Christmas tree, Christmas cards and Christmas decorations, which had previously not made its way over from the continent. Other than that, Christmas was much the same as it had been in the Georgian era. The upper classes had goose, swan and turkey as their centrepiece, with vegetables becoming a more important part of the meal. When it comes to desserts, Christmas pudding as we know it started to become more popular, it was apparently Prince Albert’s favourite! Twelfth Night Cakes continued to be popular and figgy pudding and mince pies started to become much sweeter and appeared on menus, served alongside mulled wine or warm brandy.

Christmas between the wars

Wartime meant that Christmas dinner was majorly scaled back but between the two World Wars, we finally start to see something that resembles the Christmas dinner of today. It was between the wars that turkey overtook the other meat options as the centrepiece of a Christmas dinner, though it was still fairly expensive. The meals started to become more structured at this time too, with a starter, usually of soup or salad, a main, which would involve turkey served with vegetables and bread sauce and a dessert, the most important being Christmas pudding. In the 1920s, Christmas pudding was really cemented as a staple part of the Christmas meal because the royal family published their Christmas pudding recipe.

Which era do you think had the best menus for Christmas?




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