As a three-year-old, one of the first mentions of Christmas for me was in a slim edition of The Little Match Girl. In this story by Hans Christian Andersen, a poor little girl, dressed in ragged clothes, wanders the darkened streets trying to sell a bundle of matches. As it gets colder, she huddles up against a pole and lights up one of the matches. As soon as she does that, a vision of a shiny stove and a blazing fire appears. As she goes closer, the match burns out and the warmth disappears. She lights another one, and a sumptuous spread comes alive. “There was a decorated cake, plump, ripe and juicy fruit, and a beautifully roasted and stuffed turkey all ready to be carved. She could almost taste the lovely food…,” mentions the tale. The next match brings with it a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, and she continues to see vision after vision till her matches run out. This touching story about a child’s dreams and hopes was published in 1845, and has been read by countless children ever since. But for me, there was something more that stayed on. It was that image of the table groaning with warm, rich meats and desserts in my copy of the book, which has come to stand as an embodiment of the perfect Christmas feast.
There are several such instances of Yuletide feasts and festivities that pepper the literary classics, both old and new. From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Laura Ingalls Wilder The Long Winter, and even Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, in each of the books we come across delightful mentions of crystallised ginger, roasts with rich gravies, wobbly cranberry jelly, and more. A lot of these feasts are set amidst backdrops of hardship, frugality, war and a bleak winter, and yet the coming together of the family to the Christmas table, trying to make the best of the times with that one special dish is both heartwarming and also a lesson for the present times.
In some of the stories, the Christmas feast stands as a symbol of togetherness and camaraderie. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the lonely 11-year-old boy celebrates his first proper Christmas with his friends at Hogwarts, away from the frets and frowns of his uncle and aunt. Until then, subjected to scraps at the Dursleys, this Christmas meal at his school with his friends, the Weasleys, proves to be a deeply moving experience for him. As J.K. Rowling writes: “Harry had never in all of his life had such as a Christmas dinner. A hundred fat, roast turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes, platters of fat chipolatas, tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce, and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table.” A similar story of kinship can be seen in Ruskin Bond’s Calypso Christmas, in which after spending a lonely Christmas in London earlier, the author spends the festival that year with his friends from Jamaica and Trinidad. Over strains of Basin Street Blues, the author and his friends bond over Jamaican rum and crisp rashers of fried bacon with eggs.
In Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, a 1965 autobiographical work, one sees the author embark on an adventure with his friends to whip up a Christmas fruitcake, using money from the “Fruitcake fund”. “Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home,” he writes. The descriptions of how this cake comes together on a black stove, which glows like a “lighted pumpkin” is enough to make anyone salivate. He writes with flourish about whirling eggbeaters, air sweetened with vanilla, and nose-tingling aromas.
Dickens’ iconic A Christmas Carol speaks of great transformation, and in one of the scenes, the ghost of Christmas present takes Ebenezer Scrooge to his own room, but it is nothing like its present form. The walls and ceiling are hung with living green, the crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe are reflected in the light. “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, long wreaths of sausage, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” If there was ever a checklist for a Christmas feast, this is it!
In the last chapter in the book, Scrooge, who has changed for the better, can be seen buying a turkey for his employee, Bob Cratchit. An article in the Guardian mentions how this bird came to be associated with Christmas. “Though turkey was financially out of reach for most English families until the mid-20th century, the bird has long been associated with Christmas. Henry VIII is rumoured to have placed one on his Christmas table, and Edward VII made it a fashionable choice for the wealthy in the early years of last century. It also plays an important role in A Christmas Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge’s fowl gift to Bob and his family on Christmas Day is indicative of his newfound generosity,” it states.
It is this sense of generosity which can be seen in Little Women by American novelist Louisa May Alcott, when the March girls forego their Christmas breakfast for the poor Hummel children in the neighbourhood. Over time, countless food writers and bloggers have tried to recreate this breakfast menu in their kitchens. Rebecca Ritchey, a freelance writer, photographer, and publishing professional, started Eating Books in 2014 as a project to highlight food in literature. In a post titled ‘Little Women Christmas Breakfast’, she reimagines the menu as: “Although the food is not heavily described in the book (it alludes to buckwheat, muffins and cream) I always pictured something mealy and festive. I decided to do my own take on a Victorian breakfast with sausages, baked potatoes, biscuits, eggs in cream, an assortment of fruit and a Christmas pudding.”
Christmas dishes have found a place in morbid murder mysteries as well. In Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Hercule Poirot finds a sinister warning on his pillow to avoid the plum pudding, a dessert which has the distinction of being central to the plot of this thriller. Stodgy pudding and overcooked turkey make an appearance yet again, this time in P.D. James The Mistletoe Murder and other stories.
So, this Christmas, what’s on your menu? A Christie mystery or a Dickens saga?