Christmas in colonial times was not very different from our celebrations today: lots of food, company, traditions and fun. In fact, few of us will serve as many dishes to our guests on Christmas as the colonial hostesses served to theirs.
It was considered a sign of status and wealth to put out full tables of lavishly displayed food, and to offer many kinds of drinks to one’s guests. To have a sparse table was a sign of poverty, and no one wanted to be thought of as poor.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER
According to the Colonial Williamsburg website, a typical menu for a gentry family on
Christmas Day might include these delicacies: Wassail, Cheese Wafers, Chilled Crab Gumbo, Roast Young Tom Turkey, Fresh Mushroom Dressing, King’s Arms Tavern Creamed Celery with Pecans, Heart of Lettuce, Russian Dressing, Eggnog Pie and/or Ambrosia, and Mince Pie with Rum Butter Sauce. Hostesses would serve popular dishes like wine jelly, fish, oysters, and many kinds of cakes and nuts.
Serving fewer dishes might send the message that the family was ‘hard up’, or struggling financially.
From their lush Mt. Vernon plantation, George and Martha Washington were known to host lavish Christmas parties that would last a week. Guests would stay at Mt. Vernon, and were kept fed and entertained morning, noon, and night.
The food preparation rooms and outbuildings were the center of activity as the food and drink were prepared and served to the guests. The Washington’s Christmas dinner menu in 1790 read like a menu from one of today’s finest resorts:
-An Onion Soup Call’d the King’s Soup,
-Oysters on the Half Shell, -Broiled Salt Roe Hering
-Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding
-Roast -Suckling Pig
-Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
-Round of Cold Boiled Beef with Horse-radish Sauce
-Cold Baked Virginia Ham
-Lima Beans, Baked Acorn Squash, Baked Celery with Slivered Almonds
-Hominy Pudding, Candied Sweet Potatoes, Cantaloupe Pickle
-Spiced Peaches in Brandy, Spiced Cranberries
-Mincemeat Pie, Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Chess Tarts
-Blancmange, Plums in Wine Jelly
-Great Cake, Ice Cream
-Plum Pudding, Fruits, Nuts, Raisins
-Port and Madeira wines”
—The American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating & Drinking, American Heritage Magazine
A very popular and traditional English pastry is mince pie. Mince pie today is a fruit filled pie, but the mince pie in Colonial days contained meat. Mince pie was made from a mixture of boiled and ground ox tongue, golden raisins, brown sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a pastry shell.
Mince pies, like other meat pies, were made small enough to be eaten by hand. Hosts and hostesses didn’t have baskets of utensils for guests to use, so many items were made to be eaten without utensils. Are you getting hungry? I know I am!
If she was hosting a sit down dinner, servants would bring the courses to the table, and each guest would be served in turn. Soup was a typical menu item, and the soup tureen was always set in front of the hostess, who oversaw the table.
Between courses, guests would leave the table to let the servants clear it, and set it again. Guests would retire to another room to drink, smoke, play cards, or just visit. Meals lasted for many hours, and sometimes guests would need to spend the night at the host’s home if it was very late, or if they had taken too many spirits.
After eating so much heavy food, you wouldn’t think anyone could hold dessert, but no self-respecting hostess would fail to serve the final course of the meal. Desserts in colonial times were enjoyed only on special occasions, and were another sign of wealth. Sugar and other dessert ingredients were imported and expensive, so if a hostess wanted to leave a good impressions, she must serve several different desserts.
Cakes, puddings and trifles were the most common desserts. Try to make at least one of these desserts at your house while you study Colonial Christmas. The Virginia Holiday Nut Cake uses dried fruits and eggs. If the colonists did have fruit at the Christmas dinner table, it would have been dried fruit from the fall harvest. Gingerbread is a traditional Christmas favorite.
Try making these recipes in your kitchen:
COLONIAL COOKING METHODS
Most colonial cooking was done over the open fire. Food was cooked in cast iron pots on the hearth, using coals on top and bottom of the pot to keep a uniform temperature around the food inside. The first ovens were set in the back wall of the fireplace, and later were built next to it.
In addition to cooking food in large pots and kettles, it was common to cook with a rotisserie for meats–chicken, goose, duck, turkey, beef, pork. The rotisserie was turned using a crank and wheel next to the hearth.
Colonial cooks would have loved our modern silicone basting brushes, but instead, they used tiny feather dusters to spread melted butter and oil on their food. And instead of a wire whisk, they used bunches of twigs to get the lumps out of their gravy or beat their egg whites.
I enjoy baking and cooking, and I love the convenience of opening my spice cabinet to pull out some cloves or cinnamon. The colonial cooks could only get citrus, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon from foreign lands. Items brought to the colonies by ship were very expensive, and most were not used for everyday. These exotic items were precious, and were served only on special occasions like Christmas.
Wassailing? What’s wassailing?
be in good health” or “be fortunate.”
The first mention of a wassail bowl was in the thirteenth century, a vessel in which revelers dipped cakes and fine bread. The practice of floating crisps of bread in the wassail bowl gave rise to our use of “toast” as a drinking salutation.
In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of wassailing emerged: superstitious farmers wassailed their crops and animals to encourage fertility. An observer recorded, “They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health.”
Here’s a song that was sung to encourage a good apple crop:
“Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th’old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.”
By about 1600, the practice of taking a wassail bowl outdoors while visiting house to house had taken hold. Instead of staying home and drinking around the punch bowl, wassailers went up and down the road offering wassail to neighbors and friends. Some rowdy wassailers would demand payment for sharing the punch. It turned into a kind of winter trick or treat.
The majority of colonists made up their wassail and served it at home to their guests from large pewter bowls. Aside from the wassail, different varieties of wine, beer and tea were served. Each was made available throughout the meal, and with the matching course. In the early years, the beer was made by the women, but when beer brewing became thought of as scientific, the men took over the job. Specialty homemade beer was a unique treat for guests.
Liquor was not only used to entertain guests at Christmas, but it was often given to slaves to keep them home. Many slaves expected some sort of liquor during the holidays, and if none was given, the slaves would often leave to visit friends and relatives.
Nothing warms a body up on a frosty night like a hot, steamy, spicy mug of cider. Try this non-alcoholic wassail recipe with your family. Steep it in a large pot on the stove, then ladle it up for the family. Let the remaining wassail continue to steep in to spicier goodness. We like to take spiced cider in thermal mugs while we go out looking at Christmas light displays.
As you make up your Christmas menu, you may see some colonial food and drink on your list. When I’m cooking in my modern kitchen this year, I will think back to colonial days, and the extra labor required to make a beautiful feast. Realizing how far we’ve progressed, and how rich we are, will make me even more thankful at Christmastime than I already am.