Ah Christmas! The season of good cheer, good tidings, and good, good food. Cinnamon and nutmeg aromas float out of shops, gingerbread shows up in your choice of latte, eggnog bowls are brought to the table, hams and turkeys are prepped and roasted, cookies are baked in mistletoes shapes and candy bars hang from the Christmas tree. These are Christmas traditions that we have grown up with and hope to pass on to our children.
The origins of the Christmas lunch or dinner vary from country to country. The most popular version, thanks to years of colonization, is the English one. The dinner consists of roast turkey served with gravy or cranberry sauce, with a ham thrown in for the more carnivorous diners, a side of vegetables, all rounded off with a warm Christmas pudding. Though these are the mainstays of the meal, there are many adaptations and other Christmas treats that are eaten (if you are like me) well in to the New Year. Each of these goodies have there own unique history. Here's a titbit on some of them:
Candy Canes - Accordingly to a tale in Germany, in 1670, the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral was getting a headache from all the cacophony that children used to make during church service. He had a eureka moment one morning and decided to give the children candy sticks to keep them quiet. Unsure about how the parents would feel about giving out sweets during worship, in another masterstroke, he commissioned a local candy maker to shape the stick with a crook on the top and make them in white ‘ to remember the shepherds who visited Jesus and the pure life that Jesus lead'. From then on the children were happy, the choirmaster was happy, and the parents could not object to this holy seventeenth century marketing trick. Needless to say, it soon caught on in other countries and soon became a regular Christmas treat.
Christmas Pudding - There simply cannot be another Christmas Dessert. No pudding, no Christmassy feelings. The pudding's origins can be traced back to the 1400s when it used as a way of preserving meat for the winter as all the livestock were slaughtered in autumn. These became ‘ minced pies' and were served later during the festive season. Another strand of the pudding genealogy goes back to Roman times where a pottage was made of meat, vegetable, dried fruit, sugar and spices. Along the way (and perhaps for obvious taste reasons) all but the sweet elements remained and became the modern day plum pudding. In medieval England, the Church had decreed that a pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity with 13 ingredients that represent Christ and the apostles. Traditionally each family member takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a wish. Often sliver coins were hidden in the pudding and the lucky finder would have a year of good fortune.
Eggnog - Eggnog is rumoured to have first been concocted in East Anglia, England or was the modified avatar of posset, a beverage made with milk and alcohol. The ‘nog' might derive from ‘noggin' a wooden mug used to serve alcohol. Alternatively it might have come from ‘egg' and grog' a colonial word used for the drink made with rum. The aristocracy who were the only ones who could afford milk and eggs would mix it with brandy or sherry. For the lesser mortals, rum was a cheap substitute. When it transported across to America, it was served with bourbon or whiskey. Choose your own favourite and pour till your cup runneth over.
Gingerbread - The word gingerbread actually comes from old French ‘gingerbras' meaning preserved ginger and a confectionary made with honey and spices. Along the way it evolved to gingerbread and so to make it all a little more sensible, they made it more bread-like and closer to what we eat today. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the gingerbread man as she used to make gingerbread likenesses of important guests that used to visit her court. The Grimm Brothers Hansel and Gretel tale sparked off the craze in German bakeries of making Gingerbread houses. Now gingerbread can be found in shapes ranging from reindeer to stars to Christmas trees and not being one to make a fuss, I eat them all.
The Turkey- Turkeys probably don't look forward to Christmas. A customary bird is always on offer for lunch or dinner. In England however, the main staple during medieval times was usually boar and believe it or not, peacock. It became more popular after King Henry VIII served it for his Christmas fare and since then the turkeys' goose has been cooked. It was more widely available and cheaper and was served up for centuries. Modern cooks do prefer the lighter chicken but if you want the real deal, gobble away.
All these Christmas munchies can make you assume the shape and size of a large man in a red suit that resides in the North Pole. To avoid this and come out of the holidays looking more like nimble elves or svelte elfin nymphs, there are a few ideas you could try. Substitute only egg whites in eggnog, use skimmed milk instead of full fat, and use rum extract instead of the real alcohol. Use leaner cuts of meat for the main course and if you are serving a ham, trim off the fat. Roast vegetables, especially potatoes instead of frying them and have fruit cobblers instead on the butter rich pies and pastries. In the drinks department, mulled wine, hot buttered rum and eggnog have upwards of 200 calories a pop so try Southern Comfort with lemonade or a Jack Daniels with a cola instead.
However if you take the Christmas spirit of happiness and cheer to heart, junk it all - eat, drink and make merry. How else will you make that yearly New Year's Resolution to get fit, lose weight and exercise?