With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are already preparing for the feast which inevitably accompanies the celebration. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner is an ideal Slow Food meal (not that we’d want to feast like that every day!) It is traditionally cooked at home, usually made up of ingredients that are mostly local, and consumed in a convivial atmosphere with family and friends.
Although our North American Christmas traditions are well established, they aren’t really that old…nor are they shared by much of the rest of the world. In fact, even in the Christian tradition, feasting at Christmas was not part of the celebration of Christ’s birth until about 800 years after the Nativity. Even the date of the Nativity was not set in the Christian calendar until more than 350 years after it happened, with January, March, April, and May at different times being recognized as the month of Jesus’ birth. It seems certain that the December 25th date was settled on for its association with the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. The date had been in use by many religions previously to recognize the sun’s victory over winter darkness.
However, once Christians settled on a date and decided it should be marked by feasting, they got to work with enthusiasm. Kings Charlemagne, Edmund, and William the Conqueror were crowned on Christmas amid huge celebrations and lavish meals, and Richard II marked Christmas in 1377 with a feast that featured 28 roast oxen and 300 sheep! In reaction to the excesses of Christmas feasting, the Puritans banned Christmas during their tenure in power in 17th Century England, and the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower continued to outlaw the celebration of Christmas in the Boston area between 1659 and 1681. In fact, the United States has frequently been ambivalent about Christmas, and stopped celebrating it for years after the Revolutionary War, depicting it as an “English” celebration!
It really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas as we know it began to take shape in North America. And, largely through the influence of television, the North American Christmas has become the pervasive style in much of the world. I was startled to see Christmas displays in Athens shop windows that featured mounds of cotton-batten snow and icicle-dripping pine trees. Pictures from tropical Brazil show the same geographically impossible conformity to the North American ideal.
However, many nations have feasting celebrations that have very little in common with ours, except that Christmas is an opportunity for friends and family to sit down together, enjoy each other’s company, and take part in the tradition of the Christmas feast. In Australia, Christmas is right at mid summer, so the feast might be shrimp, steak, and chicken cooked on the barbecue at the beach. In Norway, as in many other countries, the feast is held on Christmas Eve, and Norwegians might enjoy cod, haddock, and lutefisk for their family meal. Similarly, the Portuguese traditional Christmas feast is salted dry codfish with boiled potatoes, eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve. In Jamaica, it’s rice, peas, chicken, ox tail and curried goat, while Czechs enjoy fish soup, eggs, and carp.
Whatever the tradition, whatever the ingredients, whenever it’s served, the Christmas meal is another opportunity to see the ideals of the Slow Food Movement in action. Enjoy yours at home with family and friends!