FURMETY FOR POTTAGE AND VENISON FINE
The Origin of the Christmas Feast
by Bob Brooke
The evolution of Christmas dinner is a story of robust, merry feasting reaching
down through history. Just where and when the first Christmas feast was held, records fail
to tell. But by the 11th century, strange and marvelous dishes loaded long tables in holly
decked banquet halls during twelve days of bountiful yuletide feasting.
Great hunting expeditions sallied forth to fetch the yuletide bird and a wild boar, for a
boar's head was a special treat in medieval times. Even the autocratic peacock graced the
tables of England's feudal lords. Skinned before roasting, stuffed with spices and sweet
herbs, and then reclothed in its own feathers, it was finally brought to the banqueting
hall, not by a servant, but in stately pageant by the lady, herself. To the strains of
music the honored guest, attended by her retinue of lovely young maidens, carried in
Juno's bird. Around it flocked young knights-errant to make their solemn vows over its
feathers and pledge their swords to the romantic adventure of rescuing fair maidens in
The bird was dry eating--even the far-from-finicky cooks of that day admitted that--but
served in all its gorgeous plumage, with its bill gilded to a glittering gold, and with
lots of gravy, it was at least something to feast the eyes upon.
Even the proud peacock was preceded by the ceremony of bringing in the boar's head, a
custom as far back as 1170. Two handsomely dressed heralds raised silver trumpets to
their lips as the chief cook carried in a massive silver platter containing the boar's
head, garnished with a substantial wreath of bay, sprigs of rosemary in its ears and a
roasted apple in its mouth. This lordly dish was followed by minstrels and other servants
carrying in lesser dishes to grace the "groaning board," as the table was said
to "groan" from the weight of all the food.
Not only in England, but in many lands, pig played a special role in the Christmas menu.
Historians argue over its significance, but some believe it was a symbolic renunciation of
heathenism. A medieval interpretation of the 80th Psalm said: "Where Satan is the
Wild Boar out of the wood." To carry in the head of the boar in triumph was a
testimony to Satan's defeat.
Swans were a common Christmas dainty in 1500. On Christmas Day, 1512, in the Duke of
Northumberland's household, five swans were dished up for dinner. Fifty years later the
menu contained not only a roast swan, but a goose and even a "turkie." All were
boiled, not roasted, and served with celery sauce.
Roast beef of Old England, whether boiled or roasted, was a savory reminder of the Druids'
sacrificing of the bulls when the sacred mistletoe was cut. Vegetables included roots and
pot herbs such as beets, carrots, colwrots, parsnips, salsafy, skirrets, and turnips.
Potatoes were introduced in 1586 but were a rarity until after the Restoration.
One indispensable old-time Christmas dish which is never heard of today was furmety, or
frumenty, which according to an old recipe was 'Wheat boiled till the grains burst, and
when cool strained and coiled again with broth or milk and yolks of eggs." This
pottage eventually was boiled up with dried plums--prunes--raisins, a slice of ginger
cake, currants, and an egg or two to become plum pudding. Originally intended to suggest
the richness of the Wide Men's gifts, it has come to symbolize Christmas in England.
Mince meat pies were first made oval to represent the cradle and their original form were
more meat than sweet. In 1394, one enterprising cook took pheasant, rabbit, capon, two
partridges, two pigeons, and two conies and chopped them up, baked them in a crust shaped
like a bird with a head at one end and a great tail at the other.
As for drink, Christmas revelers drank wassail from "good brown bowls" a
traditional drink made of a mixture of hot ale, sugar and nutmeg. On Christmas Eve apples
were roasted on a string until they dropped off into a great bowl of this hot ale,
whereupon the beverage became Lamb's Wool.
Even here in America, punch bowls are brought down off the shelf. As the cups go around,
the mirth and wassail echo back the joviality of those long departed days.
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