5 Traditional Holiday Foods: A Really Brief History

Christmas bells are ringing! Christmas bells are ringing! Earlier we wrote a post about how to keep the lbs off this holiday season, and they’re especially useful when wanting to indulge in the regular holiday and Christmas treats. Which got me thinking… who ever really is excited for a Yule Log? Or Christmas Pudding? Hand me a Christmas Tree-shaped sugar cookie slathered with green sugary frosting, and of course I’m going to indulge. But cut out sugar cookies make sense to me – some of these other Christmas traditions… not so much.Why on earth are Christmas foods Christmas foods, and it turns out most of them stem from similar traditions. 



Chill, America. I know you’re not eating mince pie at Christmas. However, our friends across the pond are (according to tradition). Christmas really began to take the shape of the Christmas we know today in the Victorian period, although it’s original roots stem from the Middle Ages and before. Mince pies were originally made with meat, dating back to the time of the Tudors. However, during the 19th century, the upper class began to favor the pies sans meat. So now, they’re a sweet pie with strong flavors of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon [1].


Like mince pie, Christmas Pudding has some meaty roots. “Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible.” If that doesn’t make your mouth water I don’t know what will. Don’t worry, by the 16th century, dried fruit became more plentiful and the pudding made the switch from savory to sweet. By the next century, plum pudding had become so associated with Christmas, that Oliver Cromwell and his puritan associates banned it along with other things associated with Christmas, like carols and nativity scenes. And again, like the mince pie, the modern plum pudding came to be in the Victorian era. Now, the general ingredients are suet, brown sugar, raisins and currants, candied orange peel, eggs, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and plenty of alcohol. (Sounds a bit more appetizing than the original, am I right?) While now its not such a super popular dish, we still associate it with Christmas and the ever famous Bob Cratchit [2].


I was really hoping that while I was researching this that I would find that the reason Yule Log’s have become a Christmas tradition is because it was Jesus’s birthday cake. But alas, I wasn’t so lucky. For those of you who don’t know (don’t worry, I really couldn’t define a Yule Log before this post either). A yule log is “an elaborate creation consisting of a rolled, filled sponge cake, frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like tree bark and festooned with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly sprigs, spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration.” The Yule Log’s tradition actually comes from a log, not a cake. Back before the medieval times, Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans welcomed winter solstice at the end of December, and people would celebrate the days becoming longer. During this celebration, families burned logs decorated with holly, pine cones, or ivy (not marzipan and meringue). The log’s ashes were then said to have some medical powers and be valued by the family throughout the year. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the log tradition continued, but on a smaller scale. Families no longer had the hearth-space to burn a whole log. They, did however, have room to bake cakes! So of course, they made log shaped cakes! We dont’ know who exactly made the first one, but it can date back as far as the 16th century [3].


This may be my second favorite on this list. Milk and cookies may not be a traditional dessert for families on Christmas, but for Santa they’re pretty much a staple. The whole idea of milk and cookies for Jolly Old Saint Nick stems from Norse mythology. Odin, the Norse equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter had an 8-legged horse named Sleipner. Little Norse children would leave snacks out for Sleipner hoping that Odin will leave gift in return. In Northern European and Norse countries, children still believe that Santa’s sleigh is driven by horses (not reindeer). This tradition is probably the easiest to understand and makes a lot of sense for children. Throughout Europe and America, some sort of this tradition still exists [4].


It may be hard to believe that the original Christmas sugar cookie is not an invention of modern day commercialism and consumerism. In the Middle Ages, spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper were gaining popularity and starting to be widely used in desserts. Dried fruits, lard, butter, sugar, and baking materials were pricey in those days; it was not something people could afford regularly. So, during Christmas, it was a baking frenzy. And cookies, unlike pies and cakes of the time, could be easily shared with neighbors, friends, and family. Some of our modern day Christmas cookies are still heavily spiced – like gingerbread and gingerbread cookies – like their medieval predecessors. The gingerbread man, however, did not come until Queen Elizabeth I had the cookies cut into her favorite courtiers [5].


What’s your favorite holiday food? Need help staying on track this holiday? Download Nutrino to help you with healthy, delicious meals for the holiday.



[1] History: Mincemeat: It’s what’s for (Christmas) Dinner

[2] History: The Holiday History of Christmas Pudding

[3] History: The Delicious History of the Yule Log

[4] History: Don’t forget Santa’s Cookies and Milk

[5] History: The Medieval History of the Christmas Cookie