Christmas Food Around the World and Throughout History

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Of the many traditions associated with the Christmas season, some of the biggest has to do with food. Foods that are often eaten only at this time of the year and seldom outside of the season. 

Unlike other Christmas traditions, food can vary greatly in different places, as well as through time. Many Christmas foods eaten in the past can’t even be found today. 

Learn more about Christmas food and how these traditions differ around the world and throughout history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I might as well start the episode by taking a look back to see what people ate during Christmas in the past. The differences in foods had a lot to do with the fact that foods couldn’t be shipped long distances and that people also had to eat within the seasons. 

The traditional central dish for many Christmas dinners, especially in England, was goose. When Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, the first thing he does is send someone out to buy a Christmas goose. 

Goose was central for a Christmas feast for several reasons. The first is that many farms would have geese on them. Geese, unlike chickens, had to be fed throughout the winter and didn’t lay eggs during this period either. 

However, a goose was great for scavenging on a field that had already been harvested, eating loose grain.  By the time Christmas rolled around, they were at their fattest. 

So, it was cheaper to eat a goose for Christmas than it was to eat a chicken, plus it was the time of the year when geese needed to be harvested. 

Goose also have some of the softest fat, with the lowest melting point of any regularly consumed animal fat. 

Today, geese are still sometimes eaten for Christmas but have largely been replaced by turkeys, which are larger. 

In the Middle Ages, another bird was often served for Christmas by the wealthy: peacock. Peacocks would have been brought long distances to arrive in Europe, making them very rare and expensive. 

It is largely believed that serving peacocks was mostly for show, as they actually weren’t considered that good to eat. 

Another popular dish that was often the center of any wealthy Medieval Christmas celebration was boar’s head or hog’s head. While this might turn many modern people off, it was considered a delicacy 

There were many Christmas carols that referenced boar’s head meals. 

At Queen Victoria’s 1899 Christmas celebration, boar’s head was still one of the signature items on the menu. 

Regular people would probably have had a mince pie. Mince pies are just meat pies, usually with beef as the primary ingredient. Meat pies are still pretty common in Commonwealth countries, but not so much in the United States

Christmas mince pies would often be quite large, enough to serve one or two dozen people. A far cry from the individual-size mince pies you can buy at some bakeries today. 

When knights came back from the crusades and brought with them spices.

These were often added to mince pies at Christmas, especially cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.  These spices became a staple of Christmas cooking because they were so expensive that the average person could probably only afford to use them once a year.

As Christmas was in the dead of winter, there usually wasn’t fresh fruit that could be consumed.  When sugar became part of the diet, it was used to preserve fruits. 

One such popular treat was called a sugar plum. There are references to sugar plums in the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” and there is a Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. 

A sugar plum is not what you think it is. It isn’t a plum covered in sugar. A sugar plum was a general name for hard candy. Sometimes there would be a nut or a piece of dried fruit at the center. 

Likewise, fruitcakes were a staple of Christmas, and for some people, they still are today. There are many different fruitcake recipes, and there is no one way to make them. What they all usually have in common is an ample amount of dried fruit, nuts, and spices, usually making it quite rich and heavy. They are also usually soaked in alcohol, usually rum. 

Believe it or not, the Pope had to get involved in a fruitcake controversy in the 15th century.  Pope Innocent VIII had to explicitly approve the use of milk butter in fruitcakes in Saxony in 1490 in a document known as the “Butter Letter.”  Fruitcakes in German-speaking countries are known as stollen, which is also a Christmas food. 

A popular Christmas beverage you’ll find in Christmas markets all around Europe, but especially in Germany, is glühwein or mulled wine. 

Mulled wine is a wine served hot, which usually includes spices, sugar, and sometimes fruit. Mulled cider is also a similar traditional drink in some regions.

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the traditional Christmas dish is lutefisk. Lutefisk is a dried whitefish, usually cod, which is cured in lye, and then rehydrated by soaking in water for several days. When fully rehydrated, it becomes a jelly-type substance. 

It went out of fashion in Nordic countries as a Christmas meal, but it has been making a comeback. There is actually more lutefisk consumed during Christmas nowadays in Minnesota and Wisconsin than there is in the countries I just mentioned. 

Lutefisk evokes very polarized opinions. People either love it or hate it, with there probably being more in the latter camp.

In Poland, the Christmas Eve meal is usually meatless but does include fish. The ??Wigilia meal will include beetroot soup, perogies, pickled herring, and many other dishes. 

Pickled herring is also a popular Christmas dish in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia. 

Many of the most popular Christmas foods are sweets or desserts. 

Perhaps the most symbolic symbols of Christmas are candy canes. 

Confectionaries in Germany in the 17th centurycommonly made sticks made of sugar. The earliest mention of candy canes dates back to 1670. The choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral bent the sticks to look like a shepherd’s crook and gave them to children at the long Christmas service. 

At the time, the canes were all white. The tradition of giving these candies to children at church on Christmas spread throughout Europe. In 1847, the first mention of candy canes appeared in the United States. They were used by a German immigrant named August Imgard, who used them to decorate his Christmas tree.

There is no evidence of striped candy canes until the 20th century. It was at some point around the beginning of the 20th century when candy makers began to add peppermint and wintergreen flavors and stripes.

A confectioner named Robert McCormack, who owned a company called Bob’s Candies, invented a machine that would automatically bend candy canes, making him the largest producer of candy canes in the world.

Another sweet Christmas tradition is gingerbread. 

Gingerbread dates back over a thousand years. It was supposedly brought to France in 992 by an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis. Gingerbread was originally just a spiced bread, most commonly using ginger root, which is how it got its name. 

Gingerbread was, for centuries, traditionally a hard substance more like a cookie. This was how it was used to make gingerbread men. The first gingerbread men are attributed to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who gave them to representatives of foreign royal courts.

Gingerbread is popular all over Europe, with different countries having slightly different takes on how it is made and served.

The first gingerbread houses were created in Germany in the early 19th century. They were actually made in response to the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm.

When Europeans took the recipe for gingerbread with them to the Americans, they switched sugar with molasses, which was cheaper. This resulted in a softer gingerbread than was available in Europe.

The largest gingerbread house ever created was in 2013 in Bryan, Texas. A group built an edible house that was 2,520 square feet or 234 square meters in size. It was estimated to have had 35.8 million calories. 

Assuming that a person ate the necessary 2,000 calories per day, the world record gingerbread house would take them 49 years to consume. 

Another Christmas dessert that came from France is the tradition of a yule log cake, also known in French as Bûche De Noël. The history of the yule log cake is pretty straightforward. Bakers tried to make a cake that looked like a yule log.  

It originated in 19th century France, and a traditional type is a sponge cake which is rolled and covered in chocolate icing to look like the bark of a tree. The yule log is popular in France and French-speaking countries, and it has also spread to Spain, Portugal, the US, and the UK

In the US, you will often find yule log cakes with ice cream in the middle. 

There is one other food, a beverage, actually, that I want to touch on. Eggnog. 

Eggnog is a drink made with milk, eggs, sugar, and cream, and usually spiked with some sort of alcohol, although you can also easily drink it without alcohol. 

That is all well and good, but what exactly is a nog? Are there other types of nogs like beef nog or orange nog? 

The origin of the word nog has been hotly debated. No one is really sure where eggnog was developed. 

One theory is that it comes from the word noggin, which is a Middle English word for a wooden drinking glass.  The Oxford English Dictionary says a nog was a name for a strong beer from East Anglia. 

Another dictionary says that eggnog was actually an American invention from the late 18th century. It might be a combination of a rum drink called grog and a cup called a noggin. It was called an egg-n-grog which was later shortened to eggnog.

Yet another theory is that it comes from the Scottish word “nugg” which was a drink heated with a hot poker. 

The first documented use of the word eggnog came from a clergyman from Maryland in 1775 who wrote a poem that referred to eggnog.

Regardless of where the word eggnog came from, its origins were almost certainly in an English drink called posset. Posset was made with milk and spice, and alcohol was added to curdle the milk.

As the drink had eggs and milk, it was something that only wealthy people tended to drink.

However, milk and eggs were much more abundant in the colonies, the drink became much more popular in America. George Washington served a drink that was very much like eggnog. His recipe had whiskey, rum, and sherry in addition to eggs, milk, sugar, and spices.

A Tom and Jerry is a drink that is a variant of eggnog with rum and brandy, served hot. It was created in 1820 by a British journalist. The cartoon cat and mouse got their name from the drink.

There are regional and national variants of eggnog all over the world including Germany, Mexico, and Peru. Usually, the change in ingredients involves different alcohols and spices.

Most people now just buy an eggnog mix because of the cost and difficulty of making it from scratch. 

I can’t leave the topic of eggnog without mentioning the great Eggnog Riot of 1826. The United States Military Academy, in an attempt to cut down on drunkenness banned alcohol from the campus. However, in 1826, the cadets smuggled in a barrel of whiskey to make eggnog. 

The result was a massive, out-of-control Christmas party which resulted in a great deal of destruction to school property. 20 cadets ended up being court marshaled, with several dozen more being implicated in the affair. 

The entire point of this is that there was a riot that weakened the officer corps of the US Army, which was due to…..eggnog.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the wide variety of Christmas foods that can be found all over the world. Almost every country which celebrates Christmas has its own unique foods, and oftentimes the traditions can differ within regions or even within families. 

Many of you have your own family traditions of what you eat and drink during the holidays. 

However you celebrate the holidays, whether it is eating Rabanadas in Brazil, Bacalao Navideño in Mexico, malva pudding in South Africa, or even going out for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan, enjoy your food and have a very Merry Christmas.