Memorable Christmas Feasts From History
All over the world, people gather for blow-out feasts that trace their origins to the pagan celebration of the shortest day of the year.
A Roman Holiday
Most northern hemisphere ancient cultures had a celebration in late December to mark the point of the year at which the days begin to grow longer.
In ancient Rome, the winter solstice fell on December 25th according to the Julian calendar, and the Romans marked the occasion with a celebration called Saturnalia. There was dancing, gambling, and, of course, feasting.
As History.com notes, “so riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.”
The Christian church adopted December 25th as the day on which to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a way of taking the festival away from pagans.
The BBC comments that “It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However, by the end of the century, it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognize today.”
You know you’ve had too much to eat for Christmas dinner when you slump down onto a beanbag and realize . . . there is no beanbag.— David Letterman
A Feast for Paupers
Alexis Soyer was a celebrity chef long before that breed of cooks got tattoos and funky hairdos and engaged in profanity-laden abuse.
Born in 1810, Soyer learned his trade in France and moved to England in 1832 where he established a reputation as the finest chef of his time. He also campaigned for better conditions for those living in poverty. In 1847, he opened the world’s first soup kitchen in Dublin, Ireland to feed some of those suffering from the potato famine.
In 1851, the British elites were congratulating themselves on their rise to the top of the world’s mercantile and imperial heap. At the same time, vast numbers of people in Britain lived in appalling squalor and didn’t have enough to eat. Alexis Soyer decided to do something about that and twisted the arms of philanthropists for donations.
In the appropriately named Ham Court in London’s Soho district, Chef Soyer set up a marquee with Christmas lights and decorations. He invited the city’s poor to come for a free meal.
In 30-minute shifts of 300 people at a time, Soyer and his helpers served roast beef and goose, game pies, cakes, and plum puddings. In all, 22,500 people tucked into Soyer’s feast.
The Cratchit Christmas Dinner
Charles Dickens exposed a lot of the nastiness of life in Victorian Britain for the less fortunate. There was the workhouse in which Oliver Twist’s mother died, the terrible Dotheboys Hall where Nicholas Nickleby was sent to teach under the violent tyrant Wackford Squeers, and the debtor’s prison life of Fanny Dorrit.
But, when it came to Christmas, Dickens lifted the gloom and was all festive cheer—eventually. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens takes us into the home of Ebenezer Scrooge’s overworked and underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit. The family is having a dinner of roast goose with sage and onion stuffing, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce. This is followed by Christmas plum pudding with brandy sauce. This was a substantial meal that the Cratchits have saved up all year to put on their table.
Meanwhile, the ghost of Christmas present shows Scrooge his downtrodden employee raising a toast: “I’ll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.” Bob's wife, Emily, is much less charitable.
The miser’s heart is touched and he gives the Cratchit family a large turkey.
For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept.— Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Refugees Feed the Homeless
Rita Khanchet Kallas fled her home in Aleppo, Syria along with her husband and five-year-old son. They were escaping the shells and gunfire that all-but destroyed the city during the country’s civil war. Under sponsorship, the family arrived in Calgary, Canada in 2015.
In December 2016, Ms. Kallas organized a group of Syrian refugees to return the goodwill she has received from Canadians. Here’s how she put it in talking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation “We have to pay back, we would like to pay back. We have to take care of each other.”
So, the Syrian refugee community hosted a Christmas dinner for the city’s homeless people at the Calgary Drop-in Centre. “When I hear this word for the first time, 'homeless,’ I think it describes people who lose their home, and we already—as Syrian newcomers—we lost our home.”
Thousands of churches, homeless shelters, and even individual families provide Christmas meals to the down and out on Christmas Day.
- Many of our current Christmas traditions come from Victorian England. In that era, most middle-class families ate roast goose—fare that had been popular since the 16th-century reign of Elizabeth I. Some poor people also put a goose on the table by joining a "goose club" to which they contributed a small amount of money each week, although more than a few found the club manager had vanished when they arrived to pick up their bird.
- A feast of peace broke out briefly on Christmas Day 1914 on some of the battlefields of Western Europe. Unarmed British and German soldiers climbed out of their trenches, exchanged gifts of such items as Christmas pudding, and even engaged in an impromptu game of soccer. Then, they went back to their dug-outs to continue another four years of meat-grinding carnage.
- An indispensable part of Christmas dinners is Brussels sprouts—yes, Brussels sprouts—particularly in Britain. They are highly nutritious and are a rare green vegetable whose high season is December.
- “History of Christmas.” BBC, 2014.
- “The Greatest Christmas Meal Ever Served.” The Londonist, undated.
- “Charles Dickens and the Victorian Christmas Feast.” Simon Callow, The British Library, December 8, 2017.
- “Syrian Newcomers Bring Some Christmas Spirit to Calgary’s Homeless.” Dan McGarvey, CBC News, December 22, 2016.
- “Saturnalia.” History.com, August 21, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor