From Saturnalia, to Lord of Misrule, to the Christmas turkey, traditions of food and feasting have made Christmas the most wonderful time of the year, on our tables and in paintings.
While most of us will celebrate Christmas with turkey, roast beef or ham, sweeten it with apple pie, fruitcake or panettone, sparkle it with champagne or warm it with mulled wine, Christmas was not always associated with these rather democratic foods. We can say that the Christmas feast was invented by the Romans, modernised by the British and further popularised by the Americans.
It all started with the pagan festival Saturnalia, the Ancient Roman feast that took place during the winter solstice on December 17 – the shortest day of the year – that honoured the agricultural god Saturn. The celebration expanded to a weeklong festival by the late Republic. After Emperor Caesar implemented his Julian calendar in 45 BC, the winter solstice fell on December 25.
Winter or Saturnalia (L’Hiver ou les Saturnales), Antoine François Callet, 1783
Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; “the best of times” according to the 1st century Roman poet Catullus. People would feast in their homes, but there would also be a big public feast at the oldest temple in Rome, the Temple of Saturn. Romans gambled, played music, gave gifts to each other and to gods, and lit candles symbolising the returning of light. And they feasted. They ate pork roasted with figs or stewed with dried apricots, pork sausages, bread from Roman bakeries, honey cakes, baked fruit, and they drank spiced sweetened wine. During this time the ordinary rules of life were subverted. Slaves sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. People chose a mock king: the Saturnalicius princeps, or ‘leader of Saturnalia,’ usually a lowlier member of the society, who became responsible to rule over chaos by making mischief during the celebrations.
Saturnalia was followed by the festival of Kalends celebrating the turn of the year. This lasted from January 1 to January 5 with similar traditions to Saturnalia. People exchanged gifts, including a sprig of greenery, cakes, honey and coins. We find similar customs also in Nordic traditions. The festival of Yule, equally associated with light, greenery, exchange of gifts and feasting, was the midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic people. The festival of light on December 13 is still celebrated in Scandinavia (as well as in Northern Italy and Sicily) as St. Lucia’s Day.
After the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, Christian authorities found Saturnalia and Kalends customs difficult to remove. In the fourth century, Pope Julius I decreed the December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. Two centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season. Hence, many of the traditions of Saturnalia had become absorbed by the traditions of ‘Christ’s Mass’.
Christmas during the Middle Ages continued to be a period of drinking, gambling, and overeating. Noble tables would be decorated with roasts of beef, pork and mutton, wild boar, goose, rabbits and venison pastries, or a colourful peacock would be served with its feathers. If Christmas Day or New Years Day fell on a Friday, families feasted on fish, and compensated for the missing meat on the Twelfth Night.
British painter John Beecham depicted this lavish feast in his painting of the Christmas table of Edward II in 1321. At the banquet table in front of a swan the King, Queen Isabella and the Prince of Wales, are entertained by a dwarf, jester and two dancing girls, while servers bring in two platters with boar’s head and peacock.
Edward II Spending Christmas at Cirencester in 1321, John Beecham, 19th century
Peasants could add some meat into their meagre bean, vegetable, and pottage diet by slaughtering animals, pork or poultry. They also received food and wine leftovers from their lords and kings on the day after Christmas, which was later called Boxing Day in England, referring to boxes that the lords gave to their servants.
In late medieval Europe, some towns elected a Lord of Misrule among peasants to rule the Feast of Fools. Lord of Misrule (also called Abbot of Misrule, or King of Misrule) was responsible for directing all Christmas entertainment, more specifically partying and drinking.
Lord of Misrule, David Teniers the Younger, 17th century
Although the Feast of Fools was forbidden by the Catholic Church in 1431, it did not die out until the 16th century. After the Protestant reformation, the tradition of unrestrained merrymaking continued in a different way – in the Twelfth Night celebrations and The Bean King.
On the Twelfth Night a cake or pie was prepared with a hidden bean. The person who found the bean in his cake was declared the bean king and all of the other guests shouted in unison, ‘the king drinks!’ The tradition of the king cake is still practiced today in France during the Feast of the Three Kings (6 January) although the cake might hold a small pottery figure instead of a bean.
The bean king subject was often painted by Flemish Baroque and Dutch Golden Age painters. For example, in the painting The Feast of the Bean King by Jacob Jordaens we find an energetic scene in which the revellers are united in singing and drinking. The image is nearly alive, thanks to warm colours and the dynamic composition. Behind all the folly there is a moral lesson in an inscription that reads: ‘nil similus insano quam ebrius’ – ‘nothing is more like a madman than a drunk.’
The Feast of the Bean King, Jacob Jordaens, 1640-1645
Back in England, after the Tudor period, the English royal Christmas menu included a newly discovered bird from conquered lands – the turkey. Turkey was first brought to Europe by the Spanish invaders at the orders of King Ferdinand in the early 16th century. At first the turkey was farmed in Spain, then it moved to Italy, France and England. It is said that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas. The 16th century farmer poet Thomas Tusser noted that by 1573 turkeys were commonly served at English Christmas dinners.
When the Protestant reformation challenged the very notion of Christmas, the debauchery and parties were denounced and condemned. Christmas Day was decreed to be a fast day in England and then it was abolished all together in 1647. After Charles II restituted Christmas Day during the Restoration, Christmas turkey could return to English tables.
The tradition of turkey at Christmas rapidly spread throughout England at the end of the 17th century. The London Poulters Guild began giving a turkey to one of its officers as a Christmas gift. By the late 18th century the custom of giving turkeys to employees for Christmas dinner was well established. In the second half of the 19th century the Christmas spirit, and along with it the Christmas turkey, was promoted as a time for sentiment and charity, thanks to the Victorian middle class society and the novelist Charles Dickens. As turkey was still expensive in England, roast beef in the north and goose in the south kept their popularity.
The Christmas Hamper, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, late 19th century
When English settlers brought European-raised turkeys to New England in 1629, turkey crossed the Atlantic once more, this time as a Christmas speciality. By the mid-19th century, turkey became the star of the American Christmas dinner, fuelled by the need to unify Americans after the Civil War. Today, in the US alone, around 20 million turkeys are consumed every year at Christmas time.
Freedom From Want (also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I'll Be Home for Christmas), Norman Rockwell, 1943
Distinct turkey recipes developed in different countries: while England and North America embraced roast-turkey versions, with bread-based stuffing, in France, turkeys were stuffed with truffles, and in Spain, they got doused with brandy. However, the turkey tradition was not adopted everywhere. Jewish families in America prefer Chinese food for Christmas, while for example in Italy the central Christmas feast is boiled meats or roasted lamb, capon or pig, depending on the region.
No matter what’s on the menu, Christmas has become a family holiday in the last half-century, for Christians and non-Christians alike. There is a similarity in our wish to celebrate, feast and be merry during the coldest and shortest days of the year. Sanctified or secular, the festive period revitalises our spirits to face the bleak winter months, before the days grow longer, the sun regains its strength, and life springs back again. This is where we find food, in the centre of the feast, illuminating our lives and paintings, when diets are put on hold, overindulgence is tolerated, and a little misbehaving is encouraged.