Tasty Christmas delights

Food and drink are essential for any festivity. From the 4th century, when the date for Christmas was set, celebrations emerged, many from already existing mid-winter pagan practices. As Christianity spread throughout Europe (from Ireland in the 5th century to Hungry in the 10th), each country established its own Christmas traditions and customs, but all involved food.


There is an inextricable link between the family meal and Eucharist, and much has been written on the subject. The domestic rituals of preparation, gathering and welcoming guests, giving thanks, celebrating, eating, drinking, and sharing with others are mirrored in the Mass. Welcoming others and providing hospitality is a wonderful thing to do at Christmas, and food always tastes better when shared. Here are some stories from history and some ideas that are Christian in origin.


In the Middle Ages, Advent fasting was taken very seriously. Over half of the days in the year were days of fasting. The elderly and sick were exempt, but you could also buy your way free if you had the money. The ‘butter tower’ of Rouen cathedral was built in the 15th century using donations from people who were given a dispensation to eat butter and milk butter during Lent and Advent.


For most people, fasting meant eating fish and abstaining from meat (some unusual foods, such as beavers tails, puffins, and seals, counted as fish). For most people, the harshness of winter and the end of fasting during Advent were excellent reasons for partying and feasting.


For the rich, eating was a large-scale affair. In England in 1215, King John’s Christmas order included 24 hogshead of wine, 200 head of pork, 1,000 hens, 500lbs of wax, 50lbs of pepper, 2lbs of saffron, and 100lbs of almonds, along with other spices. In 1289 the Bishop of Hereford invited 40 guests who managed to eat their way through two carcasses and three-quarters of beef, two calves, four does, four pigs, 60 fowls, eight partridges, and two geese, along with bread and cheese. They also drank 40 gallons of red wine!


In 1226, St Francis of Assisi declared that animals should share in the Christmas festivities. He said that all creation should celebrate and that the only way for animals to do so was to be comfortable and enjoy better food.


Feeding the poor was a significant part of a wealthy Christmas. In 1624, the Archbishop of York fed hundreds of his parishioners by holding six feasts. Many other landowners also sent their leftovers to the poor.


By the 16th century, Christmas was synonymous with gluttony and excess. The Puritan revolution sought to do away with what it saw as nothing more than pagan revelry (it had a point!). But feasting continued in private, at a more subdued pace. Thank goodness we haven’t returned to the extravagances of medieval partying, but many of our current traditions have little religious significance. Here are a few ideas that might inspire you and make Christmas feel spiritual.


MINCE PIES: One name for these pies in the Middle Ages was ‘crib cakes.’ They were a sweet treat offered to visitors. Originally, the recipe included chopped meat with the fruit and spices, but it became a purely sweet pie over time. It was essential to stir clockwise to bring good luck to the household, and everyone made sure to take their turn. You were assured good health and happiness if you ate a pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas. The spices in the recipe symbolised the gifts the Wise Men gave, and the shape was often oval, resembling the crib in which Christ slept.


STOLLEN was originally a plain bread and part of a monastic meal. It was first mentioned in 1474, where at the hospital of St Bartholomew in Dresden, Germany, it was eaten during times of fasting. The famous Dresden Stollen came about as the result of a competition. The Bishop of Nauruburg loved the bread containing butter, sugar, raisins, spices, and other fruits, and reserved grain especially for its production. The shape of the bread resembled Christ in his swaddling clothes, and so it was known as Christstollen.


PLUM CHRISTMAS PUDDING: One of the pudding’s origins is that 13 ingredients were used to represent Christ and the 12 apostles. Stirring clockwise also represented east to west, the journey made by the Wise Men. This pudding has no plums because it was the original word for raisins! Putting holly on the top represented the crown of thorns and setting it on fire represented Christ’s passion.


TWELFTH NIGHT CAKE: For so many people, Christmas ends on St Stephen’s Day. But we know the feast lives on till Candlemas. While that much feasting might be a little excessive, celebrating the Octave or up to the Epiphany would be a great thing to do. Epiphany was a bigger feast than Christmas in the Middle Ages, and a rich fruit cake was part of the celebrations. When Christmas became more popular in Victorian times, it became a Christmas cake.


DRINK AND BE MERRY! Mary and Jesus being present at the marriage feast at Cana is enough endorsement for enjoying a glass or two of wine at a celebration. Moderation is the key. God made us to eat, and God chooses food as a metaphor for eternal happiness. The Tree of Life is waiting to feed us in our heavenly home. None of us would complain about that! In the same way, we can’t separate Eucharist and our own meals. At home, we receive earthly nourishment; at Mass, our souls are fed with the Bread of Life. Both are necessary.


Christmas rituals and traditions are all meant to remind us of the significance of the season. Eating and drinking with friends and family are rituals just like liturgical celebrations. They are a reason for us to gather together. Their repetition marks the passing of time and gives meaning to our lives. In a fast-food culture, we would do well to remember the importance of dining together. As Christians, we can never be complacent and must always think of others, but we are allowed to rejoice and celebrate and be happy.


A very Happy Christmas to all!


Maria Hall is a music director at St Wilfred’s Church, Preston, England. She is a consultant on liturgical matters for schools and parishes. www.mariahall.org

This article appears in the Christmas edition of Reality. Sadly, this is the last issue of Reality which has been produced by the Irish Redemptorists. Congratulations to all the priests and lay people who have contributed to Reality over many decades.


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