Christmas is a time for celebration and what better way to celebrate than with food!?
We all look forward to a succulent turkey with all the trimmings for lunch, although as a youngster I usually had too much chocolate and sweets throughout the morning to appreciate my mum’s cooking.
In the past, Christmas was a time when the community got together to eat and be merry. A lord of the manor or the local vicar would be expected to provide Christmas treats, sometimes distributing them after the Christmas church service. At Christmas 1859, the rector of Rodmell put on a magic lantern show followed by the distribution of Christmas buns, mulled wine and egg-flip. Afterwards he gave out a pound of sugar and a quarter of a pound of tea to every family in the village - 52 in all. William Catt, the owner of the Tide Mills at Bishopstone would distribute bread and beef to each family at Christmas and would sometimes roast an ox for a special meal.
Thomas Turner of East Hoathly seemed to have a simple Christmas in the mid 1750s. His family attended church in the morning and read religious tracts all afternoon. As he was a parish official, on Boxing Day he tried to get taxes from the villagers although more often than not he came home empty handed. As the village shopkeeper he seemed to eat well. For Christmas lunch 1756 it was roast beef with batter pudding, bullace pies and boiled potatoes. Bullace is a variety of wild plum and is also known as ‘scad’ in Sussex.
The following year he had boiled beef, with plum suet pudding, barley pudding, turnips and potatoes. It seems that for the Turner family, most of Christmas morning was spent at church. It was beef for Christmas dinner followed by plum pudding and the afternoon was spent reading the bible and drinking tea. It is interesting to note that the plum pudding was eaten with the meat and not afterwards as a separate pudding. Indeed, plum pudding was often eaten as a ‘starter’.
In 1909 a 12-year-old school girl, Vida Adams, wrote about her Christmas. “On Christmas Eve I went to Hailsham with my mother and sisters to go shopping. When I got home I had my supper and hung my stocking up for Father Christmas to fill. On Christmas morning I found it full of presents. When the postman came, he brought me lots of cards and presents from my dear friends which took me all the morning to look at. For dinner we had roast beef, plum pudding and mince pies and after that until tea time we sat and cracked nuts and ate fruit. After tea we had more fruit and sang carols until bedtime. When I went to bed I said my prayers and thanked God for all that he had given me. On Boxing Day I received more cards in the morning and cards and a postal order in the afternoon.”
With roast beef and plum pudding on the table, Christmas dinner had not changed in Sussex for centuries. By the way, did you notice there was a postal delivery on Christmas morning and two deliveries on Boxing Day!
I wonder what shape her mince pies were? Traditional mince pies are not round but oval in shape to represent the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid. They were also made with 13 ingredients to represent the number of disciples at the last supper. (Although there is also a similar tradition about the number of ingredients in Christmas pudding.)
Because of its supposed Catholic symbolism, Oliver Cromwell famously banned the humble mince pie. In 1944 it was reported in the journal of the Sussex Archaeological Society that a Newhaven woman had forbidden her daughter to bake round mince pies. scalding her with the words ‘It just isn’t Christian”. In the old days the pies had actual meat in them as well as brandy.
We still eat plum pudding today although in the form of Christmas pudding. (The Victorians often called berries ‘plums’) Today Christmas pudding is traditionally cannonball shaped and topped with brandy. The recipe was first published in an 1845 book called ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ by Eliza Acton (1799-1859) Eliza was from Battle and her book was also the first to suggest serving Brussels sprouts with Christmas dinner.