The Christmas dinner has become the main event for many family celebrations and for most of us the day would feel incomplete without it. However, the familiar site of a Christmas turkey and all the trimmings wasn’t necessarily what the generations before us sat down to eat. As the decades have passed the change in Britain’s seasonal eating habits has evolved, but what exactly has changed?
Victorian Christmas Dinner
The Victorians were perhaps the first ‘modern generation’ in Britain and were responsible for making Christmas the national holiday it is today, so it seems fitting to start with their Christmas eating traditions. Many of the customs – such as trees, cards, sweets, and decorations – were brought over from Germany after Queen Victoria married Bavarian born Prince Albert. However, a festive feast was already a staple at this time.
Despite a large meal already being customary during this time of year, it was the Victorians that began to shape a recognisable Christmas dinner. The introduction of turkey instead of goose or beef as the central dish became the choice of the upper classes. But due to the ideal size it also became a staple for middle class families by the end of the Victorian era. Additionally, the idea of family centred Christmas was introduced by the Victorians, something that is now irreplaceable today.
Early 1900s and World War I
The Edwardian dining habits of excess and decadence were carried on into the Christmas dinner of the era. The rich meats and sweets were available in abundance – as long as you weren’t working class – and many of the habits of the Victorians carried over. In fact, many of the visuals cues in modern day Christmas advertising are inspired by Edwardian traditions.
Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War I had an impact on the Christmas celebrations in Britain. For the soldiers in the trenches small treats like plum pudding were used to celebrate in whatever way they could. Famously, in the first year of the war there was an unofficial ceasefire between the German and British soldiers, it became known as the Christmas truce.
For those back home a reduced supply of imported food from the European continent made the decadence of Christmas lesser. However, this didn’t mean people went without. Even in 1915 typical menus included recognisable foods like turkey, stuffing and mince pies. There was also the inclusion of more unusual dishes such as oyster soufflé and anchovies.
World War II and Rationing
After World War I many familiar Christmas traditions returned during the exuberant 1920s and earnest 1930s, but once again it was the outbreak of war that had an impact on Christmas dinner. On this occasion the effect was even more profound due to the impact of rationing on families during World War II.
However, the attitude of ‘make do and mend’ led to triumphs of ingenuity when it came to a Christmas feast. Many people used home reared chickens as turkey was sparse and expensive, vegetables were home grown too. Rations of other meats were often saved up before Christmas and tea and sugar had slightly higher allowances. Finally, fruit and marzipan for puddings was almost entirely unavailable, so sponge with inventive fillings was used instead, and French imports – such as cheese and brandy – were stopped entirely.
As rationing continued under strict regulations until 1954 the ingenuity needed to make an enjoyable Christmas dinner remained. Once it ended, the Christmas traditions returned with the familiar sites of turkey, vegetables, fruit puddings, and alcohol. By the 1960s the modern Christmas dinner was largely what we recognise today and those traditions have remained with any changes being more personal to each specific family.