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From Gluttony to Gratitude: A Festive Food Fix

News Section Icon Published 12/12/2014

Christmas feasting isn’t exactly new, but today’s festive season is often defined by extreme indulgence and waste (New Year gym membership, anyone?). We take a look at 1,000 years of changing Christmas food and explore a fairer festive future.

Festive Dinner
(cc: cliph)

A short history of festive food


The Christmas we know and love has its roots not only in Christianity, as is often assumed, but also in a whole host of Pagan traditions. The burning of fires for warmth and light, the decorating of homes with evergreens and the coming together of people to break up the long, cold winter are all ancient mid-winter customs.


The idea of an end-of-year feast emerged in Medieval times, when the richest in society splashed out on goose, venison or even swan. The poor usually used the off-cuts of these expensive animals, which would be made into aptly named “‘umble pie”. Puddings heavy with dried fruit, porridge and spices also emerged at this time.


The phrase “eat, drink and be merry” was coined in the Elizabethan era, when the Christmas banquet ruled. Sugar, spices, nuts and alcohol were the most popular delicacies and playful food was all the rage – “sweetmeats”, which promoted edible artistry, trickery and beauty by crafting sweet treats into all manner of surprising shapes, were commonplace.


Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, festivities were restrained – a legacy of the Puritan ban on Christmas celebrations in 1644. As the decades rolled on, however, people relaxed, and – once again – a big meal became the focal point. Mutton, beef and mince pies (made using meat) were Christmas favourites.


Christmas cake was invented in the 17th and early-18th centuries, when Twelfth Night (January 5th) was the pinnacle of the Yuletide period. Known then as “Twelfth Cake”, the delicacy contained a dried bean and a dried pea, which bestowed upon the man and woman who found them the honour of being “king” and “queen” respectively, till the party’s end.


Much of what characterises Christmas today reflects the tastes of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. When Victoria died in 1901, turkeys were the culinary centrepiece of Christmas for those who could afford one (beef, goose or even rabbit were less desirable, but still eaten), the meat in mince pies had been replaced by dried fruit, and decorated trees, greetings cards and crackers were in vogue.


Once again, moderation was the name of the game at Christmas during World War II. Chicken, mutton or rabbit replaced turkey, while other extravagances – including sugar, butter, nuts and fruit – were in very short supply. Remarkably, although the Blitz interrupted many Christmas celebrations, the spirit of the season remained high.

A history of hedonism

So, to a greater or lesser extent, Christmas has always revolved around food and feasting – as well as the accompanying social customs, including game-playing, gift-giving, dancing, singing and drinking. Depending on the trends of the time, political and religious pressures, and personal wealth, the festive season has – throughout history – been defined by excess, revelry and the sheer enjoyment of good food.

Gratitude vs gluttony

But there’s a difference between gratitude and gluttony. In 2012, in Britain alone, it was predicted that we would overbuy to such an extent that the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies would go to waste. That’s a horrifying fact, in a world where nearly a billion people are starving and more than a billion people are overweight.

We think it’s time we all made Christmas less about gluttony and more about gratitude – so that we savour modest amounts of great-quality, great-tasting food, sharing it with people we love. Now’s the time to be realistic about your Christmas food shop, clever about storing this food and more creative than ever when it comes to eating up every last morsel.

Gluttony or gratitude – where do you stand on festive food? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter or on our Facebook page.

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