Christmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…
A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.
So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options.
The turkey had not yet established its hegemony over the Christmas dinner table, but it was starting to stake its claim by the seventeenth century. In 1630 one Winifred Oliver, a servant maid from St Mary Bourne in Hampshire, was sent by her mistress Mrs Mason ‘to buy turkeys against Christmas’. She went to one James Yates and ‘bought of him 1 couple of turkeys for which she paid 5 shillings’.
Of course, not everyone in early modern England was in a position to splash out on a feast of their own like the Masons did (those turkeys cost the equivalent of 3 days wages for a craftsman in the building trade, not an insignificant sum). There was therefore, in principle at least, an expectation that the rich would keep ‘open house’ on Christmas Day to ensure that the poor did not go without. As the Tudor farmer-poet Thomas Tusser put it:
‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?’
In seems likely that in practice this ‘all-in-it-together’ spirit was rather limited though, and that the wealthy, as Ronald Hutton puts it, ‘mostly entertained their social equals and immediate inferiors’. Some tenants and neighbours might get to feast at their lord’s expense, but the generosity was not in reality extended to all comers.
There is a debate among historians about the extent to which the early modern period witnessed a ‘decline in hospitality’ of this sort. James I certainly felt that the rich were failing to fulfil their traditional obligations to feed the poor, and in a speech to landowners in 1616 he berated them for allowing an alarming decrease in the dispensation of hospitality and charity which he linked to a growing tendency for the aristocracy and gentry to spend the Christmas season in London rather than at their country estates. Research into household accounts has suggested that the elite were becoming less likely to keep open house during the Twelve Days in the seventeenth century than they had been earlier, although it is possible that the King’s calls for the revival of old-fashioned seasonal hospitality were being driven by the growth of poverty and inequality in the years between 1560-1640 – and a growing demand for charity – rather than an actual decrease in hospitality itself.
Either way, it is clear enough that many people were missing out on whatever hospitality was on offer at Christmas time. And some of them were prepared to take desperate measures to ensure that their family would not go without a decent Christmas Day meal. In 1597 Phillip Marshall, a widow of Bratton in Devon (Phillip was not an unusual name for woman in early modern Devon), was driven to take drastic action to find some food for the festive table. She confessed to the village constables that she and her daughter had stolen a lamb from a nearby field on Christmas Eve, which they ‘killed and dressed’ in their own house ‘to serve their great need’. We might assume a similar sense of desperation had motivated whoever it was that stole a piece of meat from the butcher John Crocker late on Christmas Eve of 1629. Crocker reported that ‘between 5 and 6 of the clock in the evening a little before he had lighted his candle he had a piece of beef stolen from his stall in the market place of the town of Okehampton’.
That food thefts – what their perpetrators would no doubt have seen as ‘crimes of necessity’ – were common at Christmas time is reflected in the suspicion that was directed at relatively poor people who suddenly had a healthy table on the big day. John Crowdacott, a husbandman farmer from Winkleigh in Devon, was accused by the village constables of having stolen two geese that were found in his house during the Twelve Days of Christmas in 1620. Crowdacott protested his innocence, insisting that the geese had been gifted to him by his brother, and that one of the geese ‘he killed upon Christmas Eve and another in the holy days’ to allow him to enjoy a little festive feasting. When charity was not forthcoming from above, then, families might step in to help out those in need. Margarett Richards of Tiverton went even further in extending Christian charity at Christmas time. She admitted that she had stolen a cock ‘about Christmas’ in 1698 which she then gave to one Charity Ashellford, who then ‘boiled the cock’ for herself and her child to eat on Christmas Day. Richards had risked the wrath of the law to make sure that a woman and child to whom she was seemingly unrelated did not end up missing out on this cherished ritual feast.
There is an unmistakably Dickensian feel to some of these examples of want, desperation and charity at Christmas time. That reminds us that these too are timeless features of the season, just as much as the feasting and merriment we hope to enjoy as we sit down to Christmas dinner. In Tudor and Stuart – as in Dickensian – England, the Christmas Day feast could for many reinforce the experience of poverty, rather than serve as a celebration of plenty. The same is very much still true today, of course, but for those who can afford it we can now emulate the generosity of Margarett Richards by clicking a few buttons, rather than breaking the law: Donate to Crisis at Christmas. Happy Holidays folks.
 Much of the background information about Christmas dinners in this post comes from Ronald Hutton’s wonderful The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (OUP, 1996), a veritable treasure trove for the history of Britain’s traditional calendar festivals. This quote comes from p. 19.
 Felicity Heal’s Hospitality in Early Modern England (OUP, 1990) is the classic text in this field.