We all love tracing our family traditions back through the generations to find out where they began, but how much do you know about these traditional Christmas foods you probably find on your holiday table year after year? Picture: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska
We all love tracing our family traditions back through the generations to find out where they began, but how much do you know about these traditional Christmas foods you probably find on your holiday table year after year? Picture: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

7 traditional festive foods and their significance

By Lutho Pasiya Time of article published Nov 30, 2021

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We all love tracing our family traditions back through the generations to find out where they began, but how much do you know about these traditional Christmas foods you probably find on your holiday table year after year?

Test your food history knowledge and learn more about a few popular classics.

Mince pies

Mince pies are a sweet treat that are only sold in shops and made at home in December to celebrate Christmas time, but they were originally savoury and included minced meat.

The early version of mince pies can be traced back to the 13th century when Europeans returning from the Middle East brought back recipes containing meats, fruits and spices. They were called several different names, including mutton pie, shrid pie and Christmas pie.

During the Victorian era, the popular recipes for mince pies became sweeter and their size and shape started to change from a large oblong to a pie shape. The ingredients for an average mince pie are raisins, sultanas, currants and sugar, as well as spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon.

Traditionally these ingredients used to be encased in suet, which is mutton or beef fat, but these days the pastry is typically made using butter. And you can also find vegan alternatives.

Gingerbread houses

Gingerbread is a beloved classic during the holidays, but did you know the tradition of building and decorating gingerbread houses began in Germany?

Food historians suggest that this unique Christmas activity began when the famous Brothers Grimm published their compilation of fairy tales in the 1800s.

We all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children who stumbled upon a house made of bread and sugar decorations.

As the fairy tale circulated the country, German bakers began creating their own versions – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Candy canes

Let us start with their shape. There are two main theories surrounding how candy canes got their unique shape. The first is that candy canes were made to resemble the letter J, for Jesus.

The second is that they were shaped to model a shepherd’s crook. As legend tells, the candy took its shape in Cologne, Germany, at a Catholic cathedral in 1670.

A choirmaster at the cathedral decided to bend candy sticks into crooks and hand them to young children as a way of keeping them quiet during the Christmas services. As for the traditional red and white colours, many believe these colours are also meant to represent Jesus.

Most say that the white colour embodies the purity of Christ, while the red colour embodies the blood of Christ.

Fruit cake

There’s no doubt about it – fruit cake is a staple of the holiday season. It is believed that one of the main reasons why fruit cake became associated with the holidays was that during the 18th and 19th centuries the cost of the ingredients was too expensive for most households.

Considered an indulgence, fruit cake was thus reserved for special occasions and holidays. Some speculate that this dish was invented as a way to preserve fruit. But people began to fall out of love with the dessert when it became mass produced.

Roast potatoes

The classic roast spud is a staple at any modern roast dinner, especially at Christmas. But did you know that the humble potato originated in the Andes, in South America? Reports reveal that it was Queen Victoria who introduced the potato to the Christmas menu, although at the time they were eaten mashed rather than roasted.

These days everyone has their own recipe for the perfect roasties, and everyone swears theirs is better. What’s your family’s secret to perfect roast potatoes?

Turkey

While eating turkey on Christmas Day might not be as much of a staple these days as it used to be, it is still a long-kept festive tradition that will be observed around many a dinner table today. Traditionally, it was a goose that got the chop at Christmas.

People were reluctant to slaughter their cows for beef as they could produce milk throughout the year, while chickens produced eggs and were very expensive.

Geese only laid eggs seasonally, so they were fattened up and eaten for Christmas. As years passed, families were getting bigger and bigger and a goose just was not big enough to go around, so people went for turkey.

The good thing about Christmas Day and turkeys is that Christmas is family time, and turkeys are family size.

Ham

Whether it is glazed and baked or simply eaten cold off the bone, ham finds its way into most Christmas celebrations.

Pork has featured in festivities since ancient times. At Scandinavian Yule celebrations, a pig was sacrificed to Freyr, the god of the sun and patron of bountiful harvests.

In other parts, the ham was a spring festival food as it was one of the few types of meat available after the long winter.

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