Profusion Of Food At Christ-tide

If any exception can be taken to Christ-tide in England, it is to the

enormous amount of flesh, fowl, etc., consumed. To a sensitive mind,

the butchers' shops, gorged with the flesh of fat beeves, or the

poulterers, with their hecatombs of turkeys, are repulsive, to say the

least. It is the remains of a coarse barbarism, which shows but little

signs of dying out. Profusion of food at this season is traditional,

and has been handed down from generation to generation. A Christmas

dinner must, if possible, be every one's portion, down to the pauper

in the workhouse, and even the prisoner in the gaol. Tusser, who,

though he could write--

At Christmas we banket, the riche with the poore,

Who then (but the miser) but openeth his doore.

At Christmas, of Christ, many Carols we sing;

And give many gifts, for the joy of that King,

could also sing of Christmas husbandly fare--

Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,

Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.

They both do provide against Christmas do come,

To welcome their neighbor, good chere to have some.

Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall,

Brawne, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withall.

Biefe, Mutton, and Porke, shred pies of the best,

Pig, veale, goose, and capon, and Turkey well drest.

Cheese, apples, and nuttes, ioly Carols to here,

As then, in the countrey, is compted good chere.

What cost to good husband is any of this?

Good houshold provision, only, it is.

Of other, the like I do leave out a meny,

That costeth the husband man never a peny.

But his intention in this provision is not for personal


At Christmas, be mery, and thankfull withall,

And feast thy poore neighbours, the great with y^{e} small.

Yea, al the yere long, to the poore let us give,

God's blessing to follow us while we do live.

This hospitality in the country was made the subject of legislation,

for James I. much disliked the flocking of the gentry, etc., to

London, as he said in his address to the council of the Star Chamber:

And therefore, as every fish lives in his own place, some in the

fresh, some in the salt, some in the mud, so let every one live in his

own place--some at Court, some in the city, some in the country;

specially at festival times, as Christmas, and Easter, and the rest.

Nay, he issued a proclamation ordering the landed gentry to repair to

their country seats at Christmas, which is thus noticed in a letter

from Mr. Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton (21st December 1622):

Diverse Lords and personages of quality have made means to be

dispensed withall for going into the country this Christmas, according

to the proclamation; but it will not be granted, so that they pack

away on all sides for fear of the worst. And Charles I. inherited his

father's opinions on this matter, for he also proclaimed that every

nobleman or gentleman, bishop, rector, or curate, unless he be in the

service of the Court or Council, shall in forty days depart from the

cities of London and Westminster, and resort to their several counties

where they usually reside, and there keep their habitations and


As to Christmas fare, place must be given, I think, to The Roast Beef

of Old England, which used to be a standing dish on every table--from

the Sir Loin, said to have been knighted by Charles II. when in a

merry mood, to the Baron of Beef, which is, like a saddle of

mutton, two loins joined together by the backbone. This enormous dish

is not within the range of ordinary mortals; but the Queen always

keeps up the custom of having one wherever she may be, at Windsor, or

Osborne. Beef may be said to be the staple flesh of England, and is

procurable by every one except the very poorest, whilst it is not

given to all to obtain the lordly boar's head, which used to be an

indispensable adjunct to the Christmas feast. One thing is, that wild

boars only exist in England either in zoological gardens or in a few

parks--notably Windsor--in a semi-domesticated state. The bringing in

the boar's head was conducted with great ceremony, as Holinshed tells

us that in 1170, when Henry I. had his son crowned as joint-ruler with

himself, Upon the daie of coronation King Henrie, the father, served

his sonne at the table, as server, bringing up the bore's head with

trumpets before it, according to the maner.

In Christmasse carolles, newely enprinted at Lond[=o], in the

fletestrete at the Sygne of the Sonne, by Wynkyn de Worde. The Yere of

our lorde M.D.XXI., is the following, which, from its being newely

enprinted, must have been older than the date given:--

A carol bringyng in the bores heed.

Caput apri differo[75]

Reddens laudes domino.

The bores heed in hande bring I,

With garlands gay and rosemary.

I praye you all synge merely

Qui estis in conuiuio.

The bores heed I understande

Is the chefe servyce in this lande

Loke where euer it be fande[76]

Servite cum cantico.

Be gladde lordes bothe more and lasse,[77]

For this hath ordeyned our stewarde

To chere you all this Christmasse

The bores heed with mustarde.


The custom of ceremoniously introducing the boar's head at Christ-tide

was, at one time, of general use among the nobility, and still

obtains at Queen's College, Oxford; and its raison d'etre is said to

be that at some remote time a student of this College was walking in

the neighbouring forest of Shotover (Chateau vert), and whilst

reading Aristotle was attacked by a wild boar. Unarmed, he did not

know how to defend himself; but as the beast rushed on him with open

mouth he rammed the Aristotle down its throat, exclaiming, Graecum

est, which ended the boar's existence. Some little ceremony is still

used when it is brought in; the head is decorated, as saith the carol,

and it is borne into the hall on the shoulders of two College

servants, followed by members of the College and the choir. The carol,

which is a modification of the above, is generally sung by a Fellow,

assisted by the choir, and the boar's head is solemnly deposited

before the Provost, who, after helping those sitting at the high

table, sends it round to all the other tables.

Dr. King, in his Art of Cookery, gives the following recipe for

dishing up a boar's head:--

Then if you would send up the Brawner's head,

Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;

His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,

Or midst these thundering spears an orange place.

Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,

The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose.

Sack, and the well-spic'd Hippocras the wine,

Wassail the bowl with ancient ribbons fine,

Porridge with plums, and turkies with the chine.

Of the boar's head was made brawn, which, when well made, is good

indeed; and this was another Christmas dish. Sandys says: The French

do not seem to have been so well acquainted with brawn; for on the

capture of Calais by them they found a large quantity, which they

guessed to be some dainty, and tried every means of preparing it; in

vain did they roast it, bake it, boil it; it was impracticable and

impenetrable to their culinary arts. Its merits, however, being at

length discovered, 'Ha!' said the monks, 'what delightful fish!' and

immediately added it to their stock of fast day viands. The Jews,

again, could not believe it was procured from that impure beast, the

hog, and included in their list of clean animals.

Then there was a dish, the Christmas pie, which must have been very

peculiar, if we can trust Henri Misson, who was in England in the

latter end of the seventeenth century. Says he: Every Family against

Christmass makes a famous Pye, which they call Christmass Pye: It

is a great Nostrum the composition of this Pasty; it is a most learned

Mixture of Neats-tongues, Chicken, Eggs, Sugar, Raisins, Lemon and

Orange Peel, various kinds of Spicery, etc. Can this be the pie of

which Herrick sang?--

Come, guard this night the Christmas pie,

That the thiefe, though ne'r so slie,

With his flesh hooks don't come nie

To catch it;

From him, who all alone sits there,

Having his eyes still in his eare,

And a deale of nightly feare,

To watch it.

Fletcher, in his poem Christmas Day,[78] thus describes the pie:--

Christmas? give me my beads; the word implies

A plot, by its ingredients, beef and pyes.

The cloyster'd steaks, with salt and pepper, lye

Like Nunnes with patches in a monastrie.

Prophaneness in a conclave? Nay, much more

Idolatrie in crust! Babylon's whore

Rak'd from the grave, and bak'd by hanches, then

Serv'd up in coffins to unholy men:

Defil'd with superstition like the Gentiles

Of old, that worship'd onions, roots, and lentils.

The Grub Street Journal of 27th December 1733 has an essay on

Christmas Pye; but it is only a political satire, and not worth

quoting here. There was once a famous Christmas pie which obtained the

following notice in the Newcastle Chronicle, 6th January 1770:

Monday last, was brought from Howick to Berwick, to be shipp'd for

London, for sir Hen. Grey, bart., a pie, the contents whereof are as

follows: viz. 2 bushels of flour, 20 lbs. of butter, 4 geese, 2

turkies, 2 rabbits, 4 wild ducks, 2 woodcocks, 6 snipes, and 4

partridges, 2 neats' tongues, 2 curlews, 7 blackbirds, and 6 pigeons;

it is supposed a very great curiosity, was made by Mrs. Dorothy

Patterson, house keeper at Howick. It was near nine feet in

circumference at bottom, weighs about twelve stones, will take two men

to present it to table; it is neatly fitted with a case, and four

small wheels to facilitate its use to every guest that inclines to

partake of its contents at table.

Brand says that in the north of England a goose is always the chief

ingredient in the composition of a Christmas pie. Ramsay, in his

Elegy on Lucky Wood, tells us that, among other baits by which the

good ale-wife drew customers to her house, she never failed to tempt

them at Christmas with a Goose pie--

Than ay at Yule whene'er we came,

A bra' Goose Pye;

And was na that a good Belly baum?

Nane dare deny.

A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine (May 1811, p. 423), speaking of

Christmas in the North Riding of Yorkshire, says: On the feast of St.

Stephen large goose pies are made, all which they distribute among

their needy neighbours, except one, which is carefully laid up, and

not tasted till the purification of the Virgin, called Candlemas Day.

Plum pudding is a comparatively modern dish--not two centuries old;

but, nowadays, wherever an Englishman travels--even when engaged in

war--be he in any of our colonies, a plum pudding must be had. If an

explorer, some loving hand has presented him with one. Were not our

soldiers, in the latter part of the Crimean War, bountifully supplied

with plum puddings? Was there ever a Christmas on board a man-of-war

without one? It is now a national institution, and yet none can tell

of its genesis. It has been evolved from that dish of which Misson

gives us a description: They also make a Sort of Soup with Plums,

which is not at all inferior to the Pye, which is in their language

call'd Plum porridge. We can find no reference to plum pudding in the

diaries either of Evelyn or Pepys, and perhaps as early an instance as

any of a Christmas plum pudding is in Round about our Coal Fire

(1730?): In Christmas holidays the tables were all spread from the

first to the last; the sirloins of beef, the minced pies, the plum

porridge, the capons, geese, turkeys, and plum puddings, were all

brought upon the board.

Plum porridge is very frequently mentioned, and Brand gives an

instance (vol. i. p. 296, note) of it being eaten in this century.

Memorandum. I dined at the Chaplain's Table at St. James's on

Christmas Day 1801, and partook of the first thing served up and eaten

on that festival at table, i.e. a tureen full of rich luscious plum

porridge. I do not know that the custom is anywhere else retained.

Plum porridge was made of a very strong broth of shin of beef, to

which was added crumb of bread, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace,

currants, raisins, and dates. It was boiled gently, and then further

strengthened with a quart of canary and one of red port; and when

served up, a little grape verjuice or juice of orange was popped in as

a zest.--Daily Telegraph, 21st January 1890.

Plum pudding is a peculiarly English dish, and foreigners, as a

rule, do not know how to make it properly, and many are the stories

told thereanent. In a leading article in the Daily Telegraph, 21st

January 1890, a recipe is given, copied from the Kreuz Zeitung, for

making a plum pudding: The cook is to take dough, beer in the course

of fermentation, milk, brandy, whiskey, and gin in equal parts; bread,

citronate, large and small raisins in profusion. This must be stirred

by the whole family for at least three days, and it is then to be hung

up in a linen bag for six weeks 'in order thoroughly to ferment.'

There is a somewhat amusing story told in vol. i. of Anecdotes and

Biographical Sketches by Lady Hawkins, widow of Sir John Hawkins, the

friend of Johnson. Dr. Schomberg, of Reading, in the early part of his

life spent a Christmas at Paris with some English friends. They were

desirous to celebrate the season, in the manner of their own country,

by having, as one dish on their table, an English plum pudding; but no

cook was found equal to the task of making it. A clergyman of the

party had, indeed, a receipt-book, but this did not sufficiently

explain the process. Dr. Schomberg, however, supplied all that was

wanting by throwing the recipe into the form of a prescription, and

sending it to an apothecary to be made up. To prevent any chance of

error, he directed that it should be boiled in a cloth, and sent home

in the same cloth. At the specified hour it arrived, borne by the

apothecary's assistant, and preceded by the apothecary himself,

dressed according to the professional formality of the time, with a

sword. Seeing, on his entry into the apartment, instead of signs of

sickness, a table well filled, and surrounded by very merry faces, he

perceived that he was made a party to a joke that turned on himself,

and indignantly laid his hand on his sword; but an invitation to taste

his own cookery appeased him, and all was well.

There is a good plum pudding story told of Lord Macartney when he was

on his embassy to China, and wished to give gratification to a

distinguished mandarin. He gave instructions to his Chinese chef,

and, no doubt, they were carried out most conscientiously, but it came

to table in a soup tureen, for my Lord had forgotten all about the


I cannot verify the following, nor do I know when it occurred. At

Paignton Fair, near Exeter, a plum pudding of vast dimensions was

drawn through the town amid great rejoicings. No wonder that a

brewer's copper was needed for the boiling, seeing that the pudding

contained 400 lbs. of flour, 170 lbs. of beef suet, 140 lbs. of

raisins, and 240 eggs. This eight hundred pounder or so required

continuous boiling from Saturday morning till the following Tuesday

evening. It was finally placed on a car decorated with ribbons and

evergreens, drawn through the streets by eight oxen, cut up, and

distributed to the poor.

Every housewife has her own pet recipe for her Christmas pudding, of

undoubted antiquity, none being later than that left as a precious

legacy by grandmamma. Some housewives put a thimble, a ring, a piece

of money, and a button, which will influence the future destinies of

the recipients. It is good that every person in the family should take

some part in its manufacture, even if only to stir it; and it should

be brought to table hoarily sprinkled with powdered sugar, with a fine

piece of berried holly stuck in it, and surrounded on all sides by

blazing spirits.

Mince pie, as we have seen in Ben Jonson's masque, is one of the

daughters of Father Christmas, but the mince pie of his day was not

the same as ours; they were made of meat, and were called minched

pies, or shrid pies. The meat might be either beef or mutton, but it

was chopped fine, and mixed with plums and sugar. It is doubtful

whether it was much known before the time of Elizabeth, although

Shakespeare knew it well; but with poetic licence he makes it as known

at the siege of Troy (Troilus and Cressida, Act i. sc. 2).

Pandarus--Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood,

learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the

spice and salt that season a man?

Cressida--Ay, a minced man; and then to be baked with no date[79]

in the pie,--for then the man's date's out.

Gradually the meat was left out, and more sweets introduced, until the

product resulted in the modern mince pie, in which, however, some

housewives still introduce a little chopped meat. There is no luck for

the wight who does not eat a mince pie at Christmas. If he eat one, he

is sure of one happy month; but if he wants a happy twelve months, he

should eat one on each of the twelve days of Christmas.

There was another form of eating the minced or shrid meat, in the form

of a great sausage, called the hackin, so called from to hack, or

chop; and this, by custom, must be boiled before daybreak, or else the

cook must pay the penalty of being taken by the arms by two young men,

and by them run round the market-place till she is ashamed of her


A writer in Notes and Queries (5 ser. x. 514) gives a very peculiar

superstition prevalent in Derbyshire: A neighbour had killed his

Christmas pig, and his wife, to show her respect, brought me a goodly

plate of what is known as 'pig's fry.' The dish was delivered covered

with a snowy cloth, with the strict injunction, 'Don't wash the plate,

please!' Having asked why the plate was to be returned unwashed, the

reply was made, 'If you wash the plate upon which the fry was

brought to you, the pig won't take the salt.'

A very pretty custom obtained, as we learn by the records of Evelyn's

father's shrievalty. In those days of hospitality, when the hall of

the great house was open to the neighbours during Christ-tide, they

used to contribute some trifle towards the provisions; a list has been

kept of this kindly help on this occasion. Two sides of venison, two

half brawns, three pigs, ninety capons, five geese, six turkeys, four

rabbits, eight partridges, two pullets, five sugar loaves, half pound

nutmegs, one basket of apples and eggs, three baskets of apples, two

baskets of pears.

At one time the bakers used to make and present to their customers two

little images of dough, called Yule doughs, or doos, and it seems

probable that these were meant to represent our Lord and His mother.

At Alnwick, in Northumberland, a custom existed of giving sweetmeats

to children at Christ-tide, called Yule Babies, in commemoration of

our Saviour's nativity. There are various other cakes peculiar to this

season. At Llantwit Major, Co. Glamorgan, they make finger cakes--or

cakes in the form of a hand, on the back of which is a little bird;

but what its symbolism is I know not. In some parts of Cornwall it is

customary for each household to make a batch of currant cakes on

Christmas eve. These cakes are made in the ordinary manner, and

coloured with a decoction of saffron, as is the custom in those parts.

On this occasion the peculiarity of the cakes is, that a small portion

of the dough in the centre of the top of each is pulled up, and made

into a form which resembles a very small cake on the top of a large

one, and this centre-piece is specially called The Christmas. Each

person in the house has his or her special cake, and every one ought

to taste a small piece of every other person's cake. Similar cakes are

also bestowed on the hangers-on of the establishment, such as

laundresses, sempstresses, charwomen, etc.

Another correspondent (Wiltshire) of Notes and Queries (6 ser. xii.

496) says: Can any one tell me the origin of a cake called a

cop-a-loaf or cop loaf? It was a piece of paste made in the shape of a

box or casket, ornamented at the top with the head of a cock or

dragon, with currants for eyes. It was always placed, in my young

days, at the bedside on Christmas morning, and, it is scarcely

necessary to say, eaten before breakfast. Inside was an apple. Brand

says: In Yorkshire (Cleveland) the children eat, at the present

season, a kind of gingerbread, baked in large and thick cakes, or flat

loaves, called Pepper Cakes. They are also usual at the birth of a

child. One of these cakes is provided, and a cheese; the latter is on

a large platter or dish, and the pepper cake upon it. The cutting of

the Christmas cheese is done by the master of the house on Christmas

Eve, and is a ceremony not to be lightly omitted. All comers to the

house are invited to partake of the pepper cake and Christmas cheese.

Any notice of Christmas cheer would be incomplete without mention

being made of Snap-dragon. It is an old sport, and is alluded to by

Shakespeare in Henry IV., part ii. Act ii. sc. 4, where Falstaff


And drinks off candles' ends for flap-dragons.

And in Loves Labours Lost, Act v. sc. 1--

Thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.

It is a kind of game, in which brandy is poured over a large dish full

of raisins, and then set alight. The object is to snatch the raisins

out of the flame and devour them without burning oneself. This can be

managed by sharply seizing them, and shutting the mouth at once. It is

suggested that the name is derived from the German schnapps, spirit,

and drache, dragon.

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