“Tis the season…Thanksgiving & Christmas meats

by Amanda McInerney on 03/12/2011

I’ve been thinking about food traditions and celebratory eating habits of late.  My youngest is off in the wilds of Canada (well, really just Vancouver if I’m to be completely honest) on her student exchange and her host family took her with them to celebrate Thanksgiving with family in Oregon in the USA.   She has returned to Canada singing the praises of pumpkin pie, which in turn led my brain to turn to thoughts of turkey dinners and other celebratory meats.   Many of us are in the process of planning our Christmas meals here in Australia and for quite a few of us, this is the one time of the year when we will contemplate the roasting of those over-sized, foolish fowls.  Of course they are the  cornerstone of North American Thanksgiving meals and I, for one, always assumed turkey was the traditional dish because they were native to the region, plentiful and what the pilgrim fathers would have dined on to commemorate their thankfulness.  It turns out I am quite wrong about this and it is actually a habit that evolved much later.   In colonial times turkeys were eaten year-round and thus considered commonplace, whereas November was the time of the year when the pigs were slaughtered, making the ribs a treat that was not often to be found outside of that period.

In England and Europe the celebratory table  birds included turkey, which was introduced there in the 16th century and considered quite exotic.  However, all large birds were fair game for the Christmas menu, with the level of festivity considered to be in direct proportion to the size of the bird.  Peacocks and swans were to be found upon the tables of the wealthy, but it is the goose that has enjoyed lasting popularity in this part of the world.   The ceremonial killing and eating of geese has it’s roots in ancient times.  Being migratory birds, they appeared and disappeared at regular times in the yearly cycle.  They were linked with the changing seasons and sacrificed to give thanks for the harvest and for the ritual feast of winter solstice. While they were a costly extravagance for the poor, in Victorian England working class families belonged to “Goose Clubs” where members joined together in order to purchase a meal that might otherwise be out of their financial reach.  I suspect these clubs were probably the forerunners of todays Christmas clubs.

Another celebratory meat that seems to have slipped down the popularity charts in later years is the boars head.  It was a staple of medieval banquets and in Tudor times it was often the centrepiece of the Christmas meal, presented with much style and decoration.  This dish also had its roots in ancient times when the boar, as a much feared beast and a danger to humans, was hunted and served at Roman feasts.  The tradition was absorbed and adapted in later times and it’s presentation at Christmas subsequently came to represent the triumph of Christ over sin.  The annual Boars Head Feast is the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season.  It is still celebrated with strict rituals in several colleges both in Oxford and Cambridge and was also exported by the colonials to the United States.

While I am quite fond of some traditions and understand their value and cultural significance, I think I might just stick with a leg of ham when I’m planning our Christmas feast.



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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lizzy (Good Things) December 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Interesting article. I think I prefer a ham to peacocks, swans and boar’s head too!

Kate December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am

We are mainly vegetarian so our Xmas meal is very UNtraditional !

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella December 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

Oh really!? I thought after that intro, you were going to do a goose or a boar’s head? :P A swan might be out of reach though!

celia December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Every year, Pete murmurs something about a goose, and every year I figure out that it’s massively expensive to buy one from the butchers. I think this year we might get a couple of ducks! :)

Great article, thanks A!

Barbara December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I introduced the turkey to my family for our traditional feast. Now my boys insist on it. One year we came over from NZ for Christmas with my family. My sister in law placed a plate of cold turkey meat on the table . My boys were horrified, ate it without saying a word, but on the way home whined that it wasn’t Christmas without hot turkey. Now we live in Australia we still have a hot turkey on Christmas Day.

InTolerantChef December 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I prefer to make our own tradditions, and boars head is certainly not one of them! :)

cityhippyfarmgirl December 5, 2011 at 7:55 am

Maybe I should start a family tradition of a boars head for Christmas morning… hmmm, wouldn’t that be just the thing on a 35C day.

grant nowell December 5, 2011 at 8:37 am

To be honest I think turkey is highly over rated… a great roast turkey is a classic oxymoron! A few slabs of beautiful quality ham is gorgeous for sure as a Christmas treat…this year its going to be fairly quiet at my house around Christmas time. For Christmas lunch I`m thinking I might roast a few free range chooks served with kaffir lime leaves, caramelised lemon, shallots, sage leaves and various other thing from the garden. My daughter who now
lives in Sydney demanded this dish for xmas lunch or she wont come home to spend Christmas with me!

Thanks for a lovely story Amanda

Anna @The Littlest Anchovy December 5, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the wonderful post. I love learning about cuisine throughout history. Very original and interesting :)

Jennifer (Delicieux) December 6, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Haha I can just imagine people with a Boars head on their Christmas table!! I’m not sure that would get people in the festive spirit these days.

Hotly Spiced December 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I hope your son has a wonderful time in Canada. Thanks for the interesting information. There is so much there I had no knowledge of.

Cakelaw December 8, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Hmmm, I think I’ll skip the boards head and stick with roast chicken. My mother always cooks a pork roast the day before and serves it cold as well, and always has a ham.

Amanda December 8, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Hmm, it seems no-one is going to be tempted by the idea of the boars head. Bit disappointing really – imagine what a conversation piece it would be! ;-)

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