A Traditional Christmas Dinner

Christmas Dinner
Christmas Dinner
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There are many foods we associate with the Christmas season, but it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint what comprises a “traditional” Christmas dinner. Because Americans come from diverse backgrounds, what’s for Christmas dinner often depends on whose table you are sitting at.

The feast of meat, potatoes, vegetables and sweets many Americans plan for Christmas day comes from historical tradition of an English Christmas dinner.

Roast meat has been part of winter celebrations since long before the Christmas holiday existed. Geese, which are at their fattest and ripest at the end of the year, were used as the centerpiece of Michaelmas, a medieval celebration of the winter solstice. As Christmas took the place of winter solstice celebrations, goose naturally took its place on the table.

Some Americans still enjoy a traditional English roast goose for dinner on Christmas day. Middle School English Teacher Kourtney Sinclair recalls that her dad, “took to having a Christmas Goose for Christmas dinner like his English mother did every year.” Sinclair remembers the goose being delicious but difficult to obtain and tricky to cook. “However,” she says, “my father was a master of cooking goose after only two years!”

The bird most Americans are more likely to find on their table this Christmas is turkey. There are several different theories on how turkey came to be associated with Christmas. Historians posit that turkey was a natural choice for British colonists in the Americas as it roamed wild and followed the same maturation schedule as goose, which they would have eaten in England. Other historians trace the popularity of turkey to Queen Victoria, who made it fashionable when she began eating it herself. Still others think Charles Dickens cemented turkey as a Christmas tradition when Ebenezer Scrooge presented a turkey to the Cratchit family in his Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol.

Roast potatoes are a classic accompaniment to the Christmas goose or turkey. Like the turkey itself, many people credit Queen Victoria with adding roast potatoes to the Christmas menu, though in her time they were eaten mashed.

Many Americans eat a classic “meat and potatoes” type of meal on Christmas day. “Ham, sweet potato casserole and yeast rolls are all requirements!” says mom to three Tucker Campbell. Mint Hill Mom Jennifer Stanley enjoys a “takes-all-day-but-totally-worth-it ham” with mashed potatoes, veggies and rolls.

Though somewhat controversial, vegetables also have their place on the Christmas dinner table. Because they can be cultivated rather easily in the winter, brussels sprouts are often the vegetable of choice for Christmas. Over 750 million brussels sprouts are eaten in December alone! With the ability to easily obtain a variety of vegetables in the winter nowadays, many different vegetables may grace today’s modern American Christmas table, but they’re rarely seen as the star ingredient. “We fluff out with different veggies each year,” says Tucker Campbell. “Let’s be honest: nobody cares about the veggies!”

Cultures around the world celebrate Christmas in different ways, including the foods they put on the table. Australians, for example, eat a meal most Americans might associate with a Fourth of July celebration: barbecued meats and fish accompanied by fresh salads. In Sweden, they dine on a “julbord,” a buffet of cold fish, meat, cheese and pickles. Russians eat “sochivo,” a rice or wheat pudding served with honey, nuts, fruits and seeds. Japanese people have only come to celebrate Christmas in the past few decades and often eat fried chicken on Christmas day!

As a nation of immigrants, many Americans bring the traditions of their ancestors to the table for Christmas dinner. High School English Teacher Nicole Jenkins enjoys tamales, brisket and gumbo on Christmas. “My mom was Cajun, and we are from Texas!” says Jenkins. Likewise, Crystal Martinez Moreno says, “Ours is very Mexican. We have tamales and pozole.”

Of course, it’s not Christmas dinner without dessert! The traditional end to a British Christmas dinner is a Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding began in the 14th century as a porridge of beef and mutton made with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This concoction was more of a soup than a pudding, and it was actually eaten in preparation for the Christmas celebration. It wasn’t until the 1600s that it became more of a the traditional “plum pudding” we associate with Christmas.

Another popular Christmas dessert is the yule log, or buche de Noel. A traditional yule log is a rolled sponge cake frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like the bark of a tree and adorned with edible decorations made from meringue, marzipan and sugar. Like many Christmas traditions, the yule log comes from a the ancient winter solstice tradition of burning a decorated log and saving the ashes for their supposed medical and spiritual properties. Yule log cakes were made to celebrate Christmas as early as the 1600s. Though few people make yule log cakes at home today, they are still available in modern bakeries.

And of course there’s the sometimes-loved, sometimes-loathed fruitcake. It was once a medieval delicacy, though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how it became associated with Christmas or how it became the running joke of the holiday season.

For many modern Americans, Christmas dessert is special because it’s a once-a-year indulgence. “Dessert was a chocolate bourbon pecan pie that my mom only made twice a year – Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Mint Hill Mom Betsy Arndt. My own husband makes a decadent chocolate-peppermint cheesecake that we only eat once a year.

Many modern Americans enjoy a special Christmas breakfast either in addition to or in place of a Christmas dinner. My own family bakes Alton Brown’s overnight cinnamon rolls on Christmas Eve-Eve. We enjoy them on Christmas Eve and then bring the leftovers to family on Christmas day. “We have a slow present opening ritual,” says Tucker Campbell. “You have to watch each person open their gifts! So we usually break for breakfast halfway through. Moravian sugar cake is a requirement, and usually a breakfast casserole.” Jennifer Stanley eats tamales for breakfast, a tradition she attributes to living in San Diego for 20 years. Betsy Arndt says, “Growing up my parents always made chocolate chip pancakes and this fried spaghetti and egg dish for Christmas morning!”

There are always those “traditions” we continue even if we don’t know why. “Chocolate in stockings and oranges for breakfast,” says Mint Hill Mom Christie Matos-French. “Those are my Christmas traditions” Regarding the oranges, Matos-French says, “I have no idea why. Some guesses are: fast and easy, goes good with chocolate, flu season?” Kourtney Sinclair always has Chinese takeout with her family on Christmas Eve. “This was partly because my dad saw A Christmas Story and wondered if Chinese food restaurants were the only place really open on Christmas Eve night past 6:00 pm. And they were. He was able to pick that food up on the way home from work when most places were closed.”

Of course, at the end of the day, it isn’t the food on the table but the company around it that makes the holiday special. Merry Christmas to you and your families from everyone at the Mint Hill Times!

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Mary Beth Foster
Mary Beth Foster works part time as an essay specialist at Charlotte Latin School and full time as a mom to her five-year-old daughter Hannah and her two-year-old son Henry. Prior to having children, she worked as a high school English teacher for nine years. Most recently, she chaired the English department at Queen's Grant High School. She and her husband have lived in Mint Hill with their children and their cats since 2011. Email: marybeth@minthilltimes.com