The history of white settlement in Australia is a very recent one, so when it comes to traditions they can be a little thin on the ground here. We are very blessed to live in a remarkably multi-cultural society and nowhere is this reflected better than in the growth and development of our cuisine. We have moved from a culinary tradition based largely on conventional British dietary habits to a remarkably diverse cuisine. Australians now enjoy a fabulously varied diet that has integrated and digested cultural ingredients from the different ethnic groups who have arrived on our shores to take up a spot at the antipodean table. However, when I think of Christmas food traditions I think of the ones I am familiar with and which were the foods and treats that were only available for enjoying at that time of the year when I was young and – just because I can – I’m going to take a look at one or two more of them.
Gingerbread houses start popping up like cheap property developments in bakeries and stores all over Australia at this time of the year – I’ve even been know to make one or two myself. I adore gingerbread and those lovely little German cookies called Lebkuchen (please correct my spelling if I’m wrong) that appear a Christmas time, too, and you might like to know there is a reason for the prevalence of ginger at Yule-tide.
The Crusaders bought ginger back to Europe from their looting and pillaging in the Middle-East and it is believed that the first European gingerbread was probably baked in the 11th century. Ginger is not just fragrant and spicy – it actually has properties which help to preserve bread. Bakers took to cutting the gingerbread into interesting shapes and decorating it with icing and, by the 17th century, only professional gingerbread bakers were permitted to bake these treats in France and Germany. The rules were relaxed during the Christmas period so that during that period anyone was entitled to try their hand at gingerbread baking – and a tradition was born.
Mince pies, like dark fruit cake, seem to be an acquired taste and one I didn’t come to appreciate until adulthood. The Christmas mince pie origins are to be found in the travels of the Crusaders too, as it wasn’t just ginger they bought home with them, but a selection of spices from the Holy Land. Originally rectangular, mince pies contained a combination of meat and dried fruit – possibly in an effort to eke out meagre resources at an agriculturally sparse time of the year. From the 11th century it became important to replicate the three gifts of the magi at Christmas time with the addition of three of the spices from the land of Christ’s birth – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. These pies were very popular until 1657 when Cromwell abolished Christmas because of it’s pagan associations and forcibly seized any Christmas food that was found (or smelled) cooking. The pies continued to be made in odd shapes, possibly to disguise them, and eventually stepped out of the shadows again in 1660 when Charles II took the throne and reinstated Christmas.
Fortunately for us, and financial considerations aside, there are no such obstacles for us to overcome when planning our holiday feasting. An Australian Christmas is as individual as the family celebrating it – it is just as likely to be a barbecue in the backyard or a picnic on the beach as it is to be a hot, sit-down, roast turkey dinner for 20 – as we set about developing and evolving our own traditions.