Book Preview: Christmas Food and Feasting, A History

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There is a moment that comes to so many of us in the late afternoon on Christmas Day, when we look at the postmeal dining table festooned with scrunched paper crowns, splattered with cranberry sauce and gravy, and graced with a half-eaten hacked up plum pudding, and we are torn between cracking on with the inevitable tidy-up and retreating to the sofa for a double Baileys and a snooze.

—Christmas Food and Feasting, A History 

Madeline Shanahan, GML Associate, shares a preview of her new book Christmas Food and Feasting, A History, due for publication in May 2019.

Madeline Shanahan

“I’ve always been a great lover of Christmas. It is just such a rich and textured festival,” says Madeline. “It has absorbed so many layers and traditions over the millennia. Both the festival and the food we eat at Christmas bear witness to centuries of both continuity and change. As a food historian, I love how individual dishes and traditions can have such a detailed history behind them. Unpicking these is fascinating and we see how a single dish, like, say, plum pudding, tells the story of culinary, but also social and even political change.”


About the Book

From its pre-Christian origins to the present, food has always been central to Christmas; a feast at which tradition, nostalgia, innovation, symbolism, and indulgence all come together at the table. This book explores the rich story of Christmas food and feasting, tracing the history of how the festive menu evolved and inherited elements of pagan ritual, medieval traditions, early modern innovations, Victorian romanticism, and contemporary commercialism. Although it makes reference to global traditions, it focuses specifically on the story of how the British Christmas meal evolved, both on its native shores and beyond. It considers the origins, form, and structure of the modern British Christmas dinner, with its codified menu and iconic festive dishes and drinks.

It also tells the story of what happened to that meal as it was taken throughout the Empire, becoming entrenched in places most strongly associated with the British Diaspora. In these places, spread across the globe, keeping a very precise model of Christmas became a key marker of cultural identity. This British Christmas was not unchanging, though; rather, it adapted to new environments, and merged with the Christmases of other cultures encountered to create new traditions. Looking beyond Britain, to places strongly associated with its Diaspora, such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, helps us to understand the cultural significance and meaning of this feast with more complexity.

With recipes and menus, this work helps modern readers understand the feasts of Christmas past, and perhaps incorporate some of those old dishes into Christmas-present festivities.

The book will be published in May 2019. Pre-order your copy here. The book is being published by Rowman and Littlefield, as part of the Meal Series, edited by Ken Albala.

Recipe Sample: Mince Pies

Gervase Markham’s recipe from The English Housewife, first published in 1615, demonstrates the combination of meat, fruit, and spice that would be quite unusual to a contemporary palate but that was quite typical of high-status food during this period.

Take a leg of mutton, and cut the best of the best flesh from the bone, and parboyle it well: then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet, and shred it very small: then spread it abroad, and season it with pepper and salt, cloves and mace: then put in good store of currants, great raysons and prunes clean washt and pickt, a few dates slic’d, and some orange pills slic’d: then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them: and when they are served up, open the liddes and strow store of Suger on top of the meate and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet.  

Minced Pies

Source: Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery , 1660.

About Madeline

Madeline Shanahan, PhD, is an Associate at GML Heritage and Manager of Public History and Research. She has worked as a professional historian and archaeologist in Dublin, Sydney, and Melbourne.

She is the author of a range of peer-reviewed publications, including her first book, ‘Manuscript Recipe Books as Archaeological Objects: Text and Food in the Early Modern World’ (2015), and a paper published in ‘Food in Ireland’ (2015), which was awarded a Highly Commended in the 2015 Sophie Coe Prize. Her interests include food history, manuscript recipe books, culinary material culture, infant feeding, and women’s history.