400 years of Christmas feasting

Here's how our ancestors reached 'an Indifferent bignesse' just as we do today…

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…

Most people are fairly familiar with the Dickensian picture of Christmas (his story A Christmas Carol dates from 1843 but still seems to frame a lot of our perceptions) and the Victorian inventions of the cracker and the card. But I’ve been digging around among pre-Victorian accounts of Christmas, and a fair few traditions go back to Tudor times and beyond.

Although a notable image of the royal family in an Illustrated London News of 1848 revivified the popularity of Christmas trees, they were certainly a thing as far back as the 15th century: for example, a document from 1444 mentioned by the Elizabethan antiquary John Stow describes [at Leadenhall in the City of London] ‘a standard of tree being set up in midst of the pavement, fast in the ground, nailed full of holm and ivy, for disport of Christmas to the people’ – it was sadly destroyed by a storm.

Here, though, I thought I’d focus specifically on the feasting that seems to be a true thread running since medieval times. Yes, seasonal overeating – Christmas stuffing, if you will – has been with us for a long time. (Supply chains permitting.)

Here, for example, is a filling list of Christmas and Boxing Day foodstuffs (for people and horses alike) from a 1347 roll of household accounts kept for Sir Hamon le Strange of Hunstanton, unearthed in the 19th century by the Society of Antiquaries of London:

Tuesday. Christmas day. For bread bought for the kitchen by John the cook, 1/2d. For 2 flagons of wine bought at Heacham by the lord, 12d. In store, 1 porker for the Salting house, price 4s.; 1 small pig, price 6d.; 1 swan from the lord John Camoys, price,[…] 2 hens of rent. And received from Gressenhall 6 rabbits, and 2 rabbits from John de Somerton as a gift. Whereof consumed 5 rabbits and one ham. For provender for 4 horses of the lord John Camoys for 2 days and nights preceding, 12 pecks of oats; and for one horse of Richard, the servant of John de Docking, for one day and one night, 2 pecks.

Wednesday on the feast of St. Stephen. For one flagon of wine bought by John Camoys. For spices bought of John the grocer at Lynn, 12s. 1d. Also at the same place 3 lb. of wax, bought of the same John the grocer, 15 d. In store, 1 rabbit; 1 goose, price 3d.; 1 capon, price 2d.; 2 hens of rent. For provender for 4 horses of the lord John de Camoys, 12 pecks of oats, and for 1 horse of the bailiff of Lexham, 1 peck of oats.

The anonymous 14th century tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also describes a Christmas feast laid on by the mysterious knight for Gawain:

… soon a table was raised up on trestles full fair, and set with a clean cloth that showed clear white, napkins, salt-cellar, and silver spoons. The hero washed when he would and went to his meat. Men served him seemly enough, – double fold as was proper – with pottages various and suitable, seasoned in the best manner; and many kinds of fish, some baked in bread, some broiled on the coals, some boiled, some in sauces savoured with spices; and always discourse so pleasant that it pleased the warrior… Right mirthful was he for the wine that went to his head.

Jumping forward three centuries, the following recipe for ‘six Minst Pyes’ turned up in the state papers of Charles I in a collection made by his secretary of state, Edward Conway. The original, pictured below, is held at The National Archives for England and Wales in Kew.

For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent bignesse.

Take halfe a peck of the finest Flower, 2 li[bra]s of suger, 2 li[bra]s of Butter, a Loyne of fatt Mutton, with a little of a Legg of Veale to mince with it, 2 li[bra]s of Reasons of the sunn, as many Currons, of Cloves, Mace, and Nuttmeggs one ownce.

For the Paist mingle 1 pound and a halfe of suger with the Flower and breake in the Yolkes of six Eggs, then worke it together with 3 parts of the two pounde of Butter. set of a little water, and let it seethe, then scym it and put in the 4th Parte of the Butter, and when it is melted, scym it cleane from the Water, and work it with the Paist.

For the Meate. Let it be seasoned with Pepper, and mingled with halfe a pound of suger, the other Frute and spyce, the Raisons must be stoned, & some of them minced amongst the meate, the others put in hole, put in the Joyce of two Orringes and one Leamond, and the Ryne of them smale minced.

When the Pyes are filled slice Dates and stick in the top, and when you sett them into the oven Wassh them over with the yolkes of Eggs, and pynn them upp in Papers.

In 1698, the French traveller Francis Maximilien Misson (c.1650–1722) published his travels around Britain. This English translation from 1719 reveals…

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, &c. 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.

And in 1773, parson James Woodforde (1740–1803) who gave the world what was published long after his life as The Diary of a Country Parson, detailed Christmas dinner at New College in Oxford, and the pecking order, so to speak, over how much rabbit everyone was allowed:

We had for dinner, two fine Codds boiled with fryed Souls round them and oyster sauce, a fine sirloin of Beef roasted, some peas soup and an orange Pudding for the first course, for the second, we had a lease of Wild Ducks rosted, a fore Qu[arter] of Lamb and sallad and mince Pies. We had a grace cup before the second course brought by the Butler to the steward of the Hall who was Mr. Adams a senior Fellow, who got out of his place and came to my chair and there drank to me out of it, wishing me a merry Xmas. I then took it of him and drank wishing him the same, and then it went round, three standing up all the time From the high Table the grace Cup goes to the Batchelors and scholars. 

After the second course there was a fine plumb cake brought to the senior Table as is usual on this day, which also goes to the Batchelors after. After Grace is said there is another Grace-Cup to drink omnibus Wiccamisis, which is drunk as the first, only the steward of the Hall does not attend the second Grace Cup… We dined at 3 o’clock and were an Hour and 1/2 at it. We all then went into the Senior Com[mon] Room, where the Warden came to us and sat with us till Prayers. The Wine drunk by the senior Fellows, domus pays for Prayers this evening did not begin till 6 o’clock, at which I attended as did the Warden. 

... I supped etc., in the Chequer, we had Rabbits for supper rosted as is usual on this day… The sub-Warden has one to himself, The Bursars each one apiece, the senior Fellows 1/2 a one each. The Junior Fellows a rabbit between three.

I hope whatever you’re having for Christmas, and wherever you are having it, you can enjoy the season as much as the circumstances allow, and can indulge yourself a little, just as our forebears did.

Next week… New Year, New York!