As we’ve seen in the past two posts on Christmas trees and gifts, pre-Christian traditions have continued through the two millennia of the Church.

One aspect which has evolved for many Christians is food and drink during the festive season, although both, in some cultures, are plentiful.

In ancient pagan societies winter solstice meant a time of feasting and revelry. The material below comes from History‘s page on Christmas except where otherwise stated.


In Rome, where winter solstice was celebrated as Saturnalia — in honour of the god of agriculture Saturnus — food and drink fuelled chaotic scenes where the social order was overturned for a month. Slaves became masters. Peasants governed the city. If it sounds chaotic, commerce shut down so that everyone could participate.

Other pagan feasts that took place during that time were Juvenalia for the children of Rome and, for the upper classes, the birth of Mithra on December 25. Mithra was born of a rock and was the god of the unconquerable sun.

Winter solstice further north

In more northern countries, less social chaos took place, although feasting was very much a part of mid-winter.

The Yule log became an important symbol of the beginning of longer days. It was also seen as a predictor of the year ahead.

People feasted as long as the log continued burning, therefore, men looked to bring back those which would burn for 12 days.

The Norse believed that each spark from the burning Yule log represented a calf or piglet which would be born in the upcoming agricultural season.

Elsewhere, farmers had to make the decision whether to continue to feed their animals during the winter — an expensive proposition — or slaughter them. Many decided on the latter. Hence, winter solstice was the only time of the year when fresh meat was plentiful. The meat was accompanied by beer and wine which had been fermenting at home for months and was ready for drinking.

Later celebrations

For the first four centuries of the Church, Easter was the main and only mandated religious festival.

During that time, certain early theologians attempted to determine when our Lord was born. The first to have arrived at December 25 was Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–c. 240). It is possible that Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) was another.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the date controversy. Ultimately:

The belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than the exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.[196][197][198]

The Church calendar in Rome had designated December 25 as Christmas by the early 4th century.

Clergy could do nothing about how believers observed it outside of attending church that day. Therefore, old traditions continued.

In the Middle Ages, the Creation and Nativity plays held in church and based on the Bible gave the faithful a sense of morality and hope. Creation stories concerned Adam and Eve, whose feast day was on Christmas Eve, and Nativity stories concerned the earthly birth of our Lord.

By the end of the Middle Ages, these plays had moved out of church into a public square where they deteriorated into drunken revelry.

The rehabilitation of Christmas

Not surprisingly, some Protestant clergy, particularly the Calvinists, sought to either put structure around the day’s observances or stop them altogether. This ended up in an outright ban under Cromwell and by New England Puritans.

Once Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660, England resumed celebrating Christmas.

In the United States, however, it wasn’t until 1870 when Christmas was declared a national, public holiday.

This was partly because of the disorder that took place during that time. The upper classes had already found this upheaval disturbing. They wanted to rehabilitate the celebration.

Although Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about Christmas as celebrated in an English manor house, the message of a peaceful, family-oriented holiday would take some years to trickle down to the masses. He said he had based the work on a Christmas he had spent at Aston Hall. He had also used an old tract, Vindication of Christmas (1652), which described old English festive traditions.

In 1822, the poet Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from St Nicholas, which we know as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas from its first line.

Despite this, in 1828, a gang riot took place in New York City at Christmas. The event was so serious that it was the catalyst for the creation of their police force.

In England, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. This well-loved classic defined the season as being one of charity and good will towards all. Dickens’s tale combined with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s joyful family celebrations (pictured at the top of the post) filtered down to the general public. In addition to putting up festive trees and exchanging gifts, families sent Christmas cards and sang Christmas carols.

By the 1850s, more genteel Christmases were based on family, home and giving. Some prominent Americans noticed a seasonal rise in consumerism. Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of them. She included a character lamenting it in The First Christmas in New England (1850).

During that decade, churches affiliated with the founding Pilgrim Puritans began to accept this newer, gentler Christmas. In 1856 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed that, although such congregations were rather dour in their commemorations, they exuded a bit more cheer with each passing year. In 1860, a newspaper from Reading, Pennsylvania, noted that even Presbyterians were observing Christmas. By then, 14 states — including some in New England — declared December 25 a legal holiday.

20th century

I was interested to read the Wikipedia entry on 20th century celebrations in England. The author wrote that celebrations only took off in the 1950s and that many people ate roast beef on the day. Furthermore, gifts, especially for children, were very basic: fruit or sweets.

By contrast, a BBC article states that turkey had already begun replacing goose and beef on the Christmas table by the end of the 19th century. Another BBC article says that merchants were keen to capitalise on Christmas consumerism as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

One supposes that these differences were class-based.

Throughout the West, immigrants brought with them Christmas food traditions. Some cultures have a late night feast, often following Midnight Mass. The Poles, to cite one example, serve fish dishes on Christmas Eve then enjoy a roast joint of meat, sometimes duck, on Christmas Day.

Cakes and sweet, enriched breads are part of every culture. Westerners are often able to share in each other’s cultural heritage by enjoying panettone (Italy), bûche de Noël (‘Yule log’, France), stollen (Germany) and delights from the Caribbean such as rum fruit cake (Jamaica). It’s a time to enjoy chocolate, chestnuts, candied fruit and an abundance of spices one would not normally use that much the rest of the year.

For many home bakers Advent is a season of food preparation. Weeks go into planning and making Christmas treats which seem to disappear within an instant. England’s Christmas pudding must be started on the last Sunday in the Church year in order for the fruit, spices and consistency to come together in time.

That particular Sunday is called ‘Stir-up Sunday’ because of the Collect used on that day, the same every year. Every English housewife knew what this meant!

In the old Latin Missal the prayer read:

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium voluntates: ut divini operis fructum propensius exsequentes, pietatis tuae remedia maiora percipiant: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen. 

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) it is as follows:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May our wills similarly be stirred as we await the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.