As we come up to Christmas Day, let’s have a look at the history of several popular Christmas desserts.
Dating from the Middle Ages this English dessert, like the name suggests, originally contained meat based mince. While meat disappeared from the pie in the 19th century (barring suet), the combination of ingredients in it today dates back from its origins which were inspired by Middle Eastern food that English soldiers experienced during the Crusades. It is not known exactly when they became associated with Christmas, but prior to the restoration of Charles II, their shape was oval and was thought to represent the manager; they also sometimes included a baby Jesus on top. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule mince pies were considered Catholic idolatry and were frowned upon. During the 19th century recipes for both meat based mincemeat and fruit based mincemeat existed but by the end of the century the sweet version, that is made today, dominated.
This popular cake is named and designed after the European Christmas tradition of the Yule Log – a log chosen specially to be burnt on a hearth on Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night. This tradition happened throughout Europe. The cake itself dates back to at least 1615 with a recipe of the cake featured in The English Huswife. In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularised the cake, known as bûche de Noël in French, creating the more elaborate designs like you see today. Today the cake itself is more well-known than the origins it is based on.
As we know it today, Christmas Pudding did not appear until the 19th century although it had its origins in the 14th century as pottage – a broth using many of the ingredients that are still in it now, alongside meat. It was served as a starter rather than a dessert. Its association with Christmas did not come until the 18th century. The Victorians were originators of the Stir Up Sunday tradition – the making the pudding on the fifth Sunday before Christmas where each family member took a turn to stir the mixture from east to west. This was meant to represent the journey of the Magi and bring the family good luck for the year. Like Twelfth Night Cake, it was also customary to hide small items within the mixture to symbolise what the future would hold for the person who found that item. A coin could signify future wealth, while a thimble would signify spinsterhood.
Like the Christmas Pudding, the Christmas Cake originated from pottage but also from the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. During the 19th century Christmas cake mostly supplanted the Twelfth Night cake and began to use elements such as marzipan for decoration. The expanding British Empire and migration to the colonies – hence the popularity of Christmas Cake outside of Britain – and within Britain itself, also meant that many people began to boil their Christmas Cake with alcohol to preserve the cake during travel. Like mince pies and Christmas Pudding, the spices of a Christmas Cake are meant to represent the Magi.
This German fruit bread has its own festival in Dresden and like those above has developed over its history. Originally it was much less sweet due to restrictions by the Catholic Church during Advent on the use of butter. Eventually Pope Innocent VIII 1491 allowed the Prince Elector of Saxony, his family and household to use butter for Stollen while bakers were allowed to as well as long as they paid a fine that was used to fund churches. This stopped several decades later when Saxony became Protestant. The festival around Stollen dates back to when the rulers of Saxony were presented with a Stollen by the bakers of Dresden. This stopped with the fall of the monarchy in 1918 but was resumed in 1994. The shape of the Stollen is meant to represent the swaddled baby Jesus.