It’s the time of year to indulge and enjoy some of our favourite festive treats. But when you’re tucking into the Christmas pudding, Yule Log, or mince pie and Christmas cake, have you ever wondered where these delicious foods originated from?
History of the Christmas Cake
The traditional Christmas cake is the merger of two dishes traditionally eaten around the Christmas period, Plum porridge or pottage and the Twelfth Night cake.
The plum porridge was first cited in 1573 and was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve. Its was also the origins of the Christmas pudding.
During the 16th Century the oatmeal in the porridge was replaced by butter, flour from wheat and eggs.
This mix would still have been boiled and it was not until richer families had ovens in the home, that the mix was baked. Dried fruit was added and finished off with marzipan.
Traditionally it would have been eaten at Easter. The Christmas cake evolved when dried fruit of the season and spices (the spices were symbolic, the spices bought by the Magi) were added at then eaten at Christmas.
The cake was originally eaten not at Christmas but on the Twelfth Night, the Epiphany. Thus the Twelfth Night cake.
With the slow decline in popularity of the Twelfth Night and the gradual increase in Christmas festivities in the 1830’s, the cake was eaten on or around Christmas Day.
With this shift the bakers of the Victorian era started to decorate the cakes with winter snow scenes. They became very popular at Christmas parties and by the 1870’s the modern
Christmas cake had developed. None recognisable from its plum pottage roots.
There are traditionally two types of Christmas cake, the classic fruit cake layered in marzipan and icing or the Scottish Dundee cake. With no marzipan or icing but instead made with whisky. It tends to be much lighter with less dried fruit and made with currants, cherries, raisins and candied peel.
There are a couple of traditions surrounding the Christmas cake. The first is the ‘Stir Up’ which traditionally takes place on the last Sunday before Advent (now more associated with the Christmas pudding).
Traditionally the cake is made in November. The second is the ‘feeding of the cake’ when alcohol, usually brandy, sherry or whisky is added in small amounts through small holes in the cake (the cake during this time is kept in an airtight container) and the final tradition which is not so common now but was in Victorian times, it was thought to be unlucky to cut the cake before dawn on Christmas Eve.
History of the Christmas Pudding
Like the Christmas cake, the Christmas pudding has is origins in plum porridge or pottage, which was first referenced to in the 16th Century.
Some scholars even date the pudding back to the 14th Century, but these would have been meat dishes and not fruit based.
The ingredients were possibly made up of mutton or beef to which wine, prunes, spices, currants and raisins would have been added. By the 16th Century the ingredients became more familiar, dried fruits, spices, breadcrumbs and eggs.
In was banned by the Puritans at Christmas but made a reappearance under George I in 1714, when he re-established it as part of his Christmas festivities.
It was a sweeter dish and during the 18th Century the custom of pouring brandy over the pudding and setting it a light started.
It was during the Victorian period that the formation of the modern pudding developed and some scholars credit this to Prince Albert.
There are, as with the Christmas cake several traditions based around the Christmas Pudding.
Originally believed to be a custom of the Christmas cake but now more associated with the Christmas Pudding, is the ‘Stir Up Sunday’.
This is the day the pudding is made. Traditionally this is the last Sunday before Advent. The tradition is for each member of the family to stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon, from East to West and make a wish.
When the pudding is made (edible ingredients) a silver thimble for thrift, a tiny wishbone for good luck, a silver coin for wealth, a ring for marriage and even a small anchor for a safe harbour are added.
A Christmas pudding should traditionally have 13 ingredients to symbolise Jesus and the 12 Disciples. A sprig of holy is placed on the top of the pudding to represent the thorns of Jesus and the setting alight of the brandy, symbolises the passion of Jesus.
Finally it is the tradition for the oldest male member of the family to carry the pudding to the Christmas table. The Christmas pudding is the pudding of Christmas Day and is served after the main Christmas meal of the day.
The Christmas pudding is now a very rich pudding and with its mix of dried fruit, nuts and alcohol is a heavy pudding. It is often served with brandy butter.
History of Mince Pies
It is possible that the Christmas Mince Pie dates back to the 11th Century and the Crusaders. On their return from the Holy Land they brought back with them oriental spices, three of which cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were added to their pies. These three species symbolised the Magi, the Three Wise Men. Unlike today the pies were oblong another symbol, that of the cradle of Christ. The ingredients at this stage were likely to have been meat and possibly eaten before the Epiphany.
During the rest of the Medieval era, the contents would have been chopped liver or meat (various meats could have been used partridge, pigeon, hare, rabbits and even lambs tongue), ginger, boiled eggs and dried fruit. It was possibly fried and then baked. Some scholars claim it was called the Christmas Pie or Chewette.
It was indeed a very popular dish, Henry V of England had it at his 1413 coronation. Henry VIII of England had it as his main Christmas pie dish.
During the Puritans they were banned and became know as the shred or secret pies. When they were re-introduced their size had reduced, similar to the modern mince pie and were then known as Wayfarer Pies.
The modern mince pie has lost its meat origins and is instead filled with fruit mincemeat which is now traditionally made up of raisins, cherries, candied peels, apricots and currants. To this spices like nutmeg or cinnamon are added and alcohol with sugar.
As with other foods at Christmas some traditions have become associated with the mince pie.
For children to leave one out before they go to bed on Christmas Eve for Father Christmas.
It is a tradition to make a wish when you eat your first mince pie of the Christmas season. Always eat it in silence.
For good luck eat one mince pie for each day of the 12 days of Christmas.
Many mince pies have a star on it to symbolise the star that led the Magi to Jesus.
History of the Christmas Yule Log
The Yule Log traditionally was a large wooden log burnt at Christmas, often over the Twelve Days of Christmas. The word Yule comes from the Norse for ‘Yul’ or ‘Jul’.
The origins of the Yule log could possibly come from the ancient Egyptians, who would burn a large log for their sun God, Horus, about 5,000BC. The Romans from 68BC burnt a log for their adopted Persian sun god, Mithras. The log would burn for 10 nights, so to usher in his strength.
But the Yule Log is more associated with the Druids and the Norse of Northern Europe and their celebrations based around the Winter Solstice.
Similar to the Romans, the burning of the Yule log at Yuletide was to help usher in the power of the sun. This was the pagan festival of fire or Fionn’s Day. Traditionally the Druids would have burnt an oak log.
The oak was scared to the Druids and the burning of an oak log symbolised life, whilst pine would have been death. The log would have been decorated probably in holly and pinecones or anointed, some scholars believe with evergreens, holly, salt and wine.
The ashes from the log were believed to have medical properties and would have been used to cure swollen glands, plant rust and animal complaints, as well as protection from lightening and evil. A piece of the log would be kept to light the following years log.
In Scandinavia, the Winter festival was to honour Jolnir/Odin. He was the god of ecstasy and intoxicating drink. A sacrificial beer was made to honour him, that would be blessed and this became to be known as ‘drinking Yule’ according to some scholars.
Other scholars believe that in Scandinavia the Yule log was also associated with a fertility god and log was a representative of a phallic god, probably Freyr.
The Saxons and Visigoths (from Germany) during their Winter Solstice would also burn a log which symbolised good verses evil.
The first mention of Christians burning a log is in the 4th Century, at the Feast of Lights, what would later become Christmas. Most likely taken from the Romans, it was symbolic for the birth of Jesus, as the light of the world from the darkness of winter.
By Norman times the burning of the log had come to symbolise Jesus’ triumph over sin and Christian’s vision of good over evil. By 1340, Queens College, Oxford combined the Norman celebration of the Yule Log Festival, along with song. This was then adapted by the manor houses of England for the Christmas season.
Not much is known about the Yule Log in Britain, in fact there are few records although a clergyman, Robert Herrick writes about the ‘Christmas Log’ in the 17th Century. Henry Bourne in the 1720’s mentions the practice in the Tyne valley and claims it as a pagan ritual.
Robert Chambers in his book of 1832, Book of Day likewise puts it down as a pagan practice. There is little mention if any of it being apart of the Christian festival that is Christmas, during the 17th Century and onwards.
On continental Europe, there is more of a connection with Christmas Log as a Christian symbol. In countries like Spain, particularly in Catalonia, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria, the Yule log is brought in on Christmas Eve.
In Serbian homes it is a central feature of Christmas celebrations, and as with the Druids, it is oak that is traditionally burnt. The log is traditionally burnt through Christmas Day.
Today thought the Yule Log is more associated with a French dessert, Bûche de Noël. It is unclear when it first became popular, but it is likely to have been towards the end of the 18th Century or possibly early 19th.
It is now a log shaped chocolate cake, usually covered in icing sugar to represent snow.
The Yule Log has different names across Europe;
• Bulgaria – Budnik
• Croatia – Badnjak
• England – Yule Log
• France – Bûche de Noël (Christmas Log)
• Ireland – Bloc na Nollaig (the Christmas Block)
• Italy – Festa di Ceppo (Festival of the Log)
• Scotland – Yeel Carline (The Christmas Old Wife)
• Serbia – Badnjak
• Spain (Catalonia) – Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log)
• Wales – Y Bloccyn Gwylian (The Festival Block).
(Article source: Various)