In my younger days, Christmas dinner always consisted of roast turkey, with lots of roast vegetables, green peas and gravy. This was often supplemented with ham or roast pork. Then, after a reasonable interval during which we allowed the food to settle, we proceeded to eat the second course, which involved a slice of Christmas pudding (complete with silver threepenny pieces) with custard and/or ice cream.
Today families still eat turkey and Christmas pudding, though other dishes, such as salads, salmon, prawns, quiches and pavlovas are often found on the groaning Christmas table.
While the newer dishes are always welcome, the old turkey and pudding remain the enduring items. They go back a long way, at least in the English-speaking tradition. So how did the traditions emerge?
Turkeys came from North America originally and they were brought to England in the sixteenth century when the New World was beginning to open up.
There is a story told that in 1526 a Yorkshireman called William Strickland bought some turkeys from American Indian traders and he started to sell them in Bristol for twopence each. Whether the story is entirely true is not quite certain, but William Strickland was sufficiently proud of his connection with turkeys that he put one on his family coat of arms.
As the birds became better known, they were often brought to England from America, via Turkish traders in the Mediterranean, so it is suggested that because of this connection, English traders started to call these large birds “turkeys”!
King Henry VIII (1491-1547) liked turkeys so much that he declared them the main staple for the festive feast at Christmas.
Over the years other English kings regularly ate them but geese were also considered good to eat, while sometimes the peacock was considered a bird fit for the royal table.
King Edward VII (1841-1910), son of Victoria, so liked turkey that he made it fashionable for royalty and the wealthy classes. However, it is doubtful that the poorer classes could manage to afford turkeys at Christmas or any other time!
In fact, in Queen Victoria’s time in the nineteenth century, very few families could eat turkey or chicken. In northern England, middle-class families ate roast beef, while in London people ate geese, but the poor made do by eating rabbit.
The custom of eating turkey for Christmas came to Australia after white settlement, at least among the better-off people. However, in nineteenth-century Australia people often ate roast lamb, while beef was later added to the table, as was fish, while kangaroo and even emu were apparently also eaten.
Today turkey is still eaten in Australia at Christmas, as well as chicken and other seafood.
The English invented the Christmas pudding in the fourteenth century and it was a kind of porridge or “frumenty”, made from beef or mutton along with raisins, wines, spices and currants. It was in fact a very substantial dish. By the sixteenth century, the dish had changed from savoury to sweet, with the appearance of dried fruits which had become more common.
Amazingly, in the seventeenth century, the English Puritans thought Christmas pudding to be “sinfully rich” and “unfit for God-fearing people”. They tried to ban it in 1664, but it was not widely eaten for a time.
By the early eighteenth century, King George I tasted Christmas pudding and liked it. He, therefore, declared it should be reinstated as part of the Christmas Day meal. Henceforth it became part of English Christmas traditions.
Why was it called plum pudding? This dates from the Victorian practice of putting all sorts of dried fruits in the pudding and the name “plum” was used to refer to all of them, though none really was a plum.
So, whatever you eat for Christmas dinner, do enjoy it!
(Lane Cove Historical Society, Noticeboard – November 2022)