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How Christmas Dinner Has Changed Over the Years

Vintage christmas card with weathered edges printed in Germany in 1915 with loving couple beside a christmas tree
Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock.com

Ah Christmas dinner, so wonderfully traditional. But like all traditions, it’s constantly evolving. What we eat for Christmas dinner now isn’t quite the same as what our ancestors used to eat.

Let’s find out what’s changed about Christmas dinner—and what’s stayed the same.

As Always, Let’s Start By Thanking Charles Dickens

The pop culture image of the classic English Christmas dinner comes from one place—Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the novel (and much superior Muppet movie adaption), Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog) sits down for dinner with his family, unknowingly observed by Ebenezer Scrooge (Oscar winner, Sir Michael Caine in his best role) and the Ghost of Christmas Present.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It's a Christmas classic for a reason.

The Cratchits are eating roast goose with sage and onion stuffing served with mashed potatoes and applesauce, followed by a Christmas pudding for dessert. The following day, on Christmas morning, the now-repentant Scrooge sends the Cratchits a turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim” (Robin the Frog)” suitable for a proper feast—firmly tying Christmas and turkey together in everyone’s mind.

But It Wasn’t Always Goose


Historically, what meat is served at Christmas dinner is largely dependent on what is available and affordable. During the medieval period, the rich would have eaten venison, goose, woodcock, and, if the king allowed it, swan; the poor would sometimes have eaten goose or the leftover scraps of venison, or else whatever they could get.

Turkeys hadn’t yet been discovered by anyone who celebrated Christmas—they’re a New World bird. By the Victorian era, things had changed little: turkey, while now known to Europeans, was expensive, so most people ate either roast beef or goose, or if they couldn’t afford those, rabbit. Turkey grew in popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century, but then the two World Wars threw things for a loop—once again people were eating mutton, rabbit, and whatever else they could get their hands on.

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Now, turkey is still popular, but there’s a renewed interest in other, potentially more flavorful, dishes. Pheasant, goose, chicken, and duck are all eaten, as are hams and cuts of roast beef. Some people even go all in and create monstrous hybrids like the turdurken—a turkey stuffed with a duck that’s stuffed with a chicken.

And What about Those Side Dishes?

Impact Photography/Shutterstock.com

The meat centerpiece is only one part of Christmas dinner. The accompaniments are what make the meal.

Potatoes, whether roasted or mashed, are pretty much essential to a Christmas dinner (I would leave any table where potatoes roasted in duck fat weren’t being served). However, they weren’t really a part of Christmas feasts pre-Dickens. Like turkey, they only came to Britain (and British colonies) in the seventeenth century and remained expensive for years. Bread and pies were a much more common side dish.

Vegetables are conspicuously absent from the Cratchit’s table. The tradition of roasting root vegetables likely developed in North America during the eighteenth century, as that’s what likely was available during the harsher winter months. Brussels sprouts, a relative of the cabbage family, are a staple of the modern British Christmas dinner, but sensibly Americans have yet to countenance their unwelcome presence—anyone who claims to like them is lying, and liking them when they’re roasted and slathered in butter doesn’t count. (Everything tastes good cooked to a crisp and soaked in fatty salty butter!)

Delling Large Serving Platter Set

Serve your sides in style.

Similarly, while the Christmas or plum pudding is the traditional British Christmas dessert and predates many other Christmas food traditions, it didn’t make the leap to North American culture. Lucky Americans—they’re absolutely horrible.

The American Christmas dinner continues to evolve. Many Jewish Americans (and anyone who doesn’t want a bland, over-the-top-roast) eat Chinese food on Christmas day—they’re often the only restaurants open during the holidays. Similarly, people from other cultures are adding their traditions to the mix—roast pig, deep-fried turkey, and Scandinavian-style seafood are all part of many people’s traditional Christmas dinner.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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