Changing Christmas fare through the ages 

Most Irish people will sit down to dinner this Christmas and tuck into what they imagine is a traditional dinner. But exactly how traditional is our seasonal fare? MALCOLM ROGERS sets the record straight.

US Irish generally favour turkey for our Christmas dinner. It’s reckoned more than 2 million of these birds lay down their lives during the festive season in Ireland. But the turkey is a relative newcomer to Christmas.

It only started to make an appearance on British tables from the late 17th century and by the 18th century wealthy Irish families were enjoying the new delicacy, slowly spreading to the lower classes.

Before the coming of the turkey venison, rabbit, goose and hare were common fare in poor rural areas, while in the city the menu would be more limited. 

The writer Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin describes a Kilkenny Christmas in his diary records written of 1828: “The poor people are buying pork chops, pigs’ heads, big joints of old sows’ loins and small bits of old rams....”

During the Middle Ages the craic would be noticeably absent from Christmas in Ireland.

Most communities looked up to the local abbey for spiritual guidance and so took their lead from the ways of the monks. And at Christmas the monks would forego all meat and dairy dishes during dinner and skip the supper meal entirely. 

And because the poor of the community were fed with the leftovers of the monks’ meals the monks’ Advent restrictions would invariably see them go hungry.

So Christmas was a real downer for the most people — particularly if you happened to live near a strict order such as the Benedictines.

In other orders such as the Norbertines records show that the abbot in some medieval monasteries would order additional quantities of bread to be distributed to the poor during Advent in order to make up for the smaller portions. 

But in general it can be assumed that Christmas way back then was not a guzzling festival.

Today we’d turn up our noses if plain bread was served at the Christmas table. Not so, spuds however. No Irish Christmas dinner would be complete without potatoes — roasted, mashed or in croquettes; traditional fare alongside the sprouts and stuffing. But before the 16th century the population of Ireland wouldn’t have had the pleasure of potatoes. The tuber probably arrived in the country during the last few years of the 16th century from America.

But even by the mid-17th century it appears not to have been widespread, and it is safe to assume you would have had to wait another 200 years for roast spuds to become an integral part of the Christmas dinner.

From the 19th century onwards, not only did spuds enter the tradition — in some parts of Ireland, particularly in northern areas, it was traditional to have 12 dishes on offer to represent the 12 disciples. 

Nowadays 12 separate dishes would probably just about be the norm — from roast parsnips right through to Christmas pudding.

But how many of the older style ‘trimmings’ are traditional? The short answer is not too many. Potatoes are from America as is cranberry sauce. Sage and onion stuffing is Roman, chestnut stuffing is from central Europe and Brussels sprouts are Belgian. Roast ham is indigenous to Britain and Christmas pudding is German. The coffee nowadays served at the end of an Irish Christmas dinner is a far cry from that which was served until the 1980s. 

So that leaves us with the potato crisps. Yes, the evening party nibbles is the only thing we Irish can claim. Flavoured potato crisps are an Irish invention: Joe Murphy of Tayto Crisps was the first man in the world to think up the idea of cheese and onion crisps way back in the 1950s. 

Joe may have passed away a few years ago but he left us a main stake (n’ onions) in Christmas-tide fare. And just the thing to have with the best vegetarian meal available — a couple of pints of Guinness. 

Cheers and Merry Christmas!


 © 2009