Tonight we’re gonna feast like it’s 1599

UTA scholar explains how Christmas feasts evolved from ancient Rome to the Renaissance

Wednesday, Dec 20, 2023 • Cristal Gonzalez : contact

Amy Tigner

This holiday season, many of us will share large meals with family and friends around festive tables. The tradition of massive feasts around Christmas can be traced to the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia, said Amy Tigner, professor of English at The University of Texas at Arlington.

“Saturn was the god of abundance, wealth and agriculture, among other things, and around what is now mid-December, Romans would every year feast in honor of Saturn,” Tigner said. “With the rise of Christianity, the tradition continued with the pagan trappings removed.”

As Saturnalian feasts became Christian feasts, the central themes around the holiday held strong, such as the hope around harvest time and the yearning for a brighter season after a cold, dark winter. But the feasting itself has evolved.

“During the Renaissance, the feasts became extravagant, sprawling affairs exclusively for aristocratic households—we’re talking over 18 different plates within a single course,” Tigner said. “The food was very much top-down, with the bulk of the feast reserved for the upper echelons of society, but there was charity involved, too. After the food was enjoyed, the leftovers would be sent out to the community for them to feast as well.”

As for the food itself, a typical aristocratic Christmas feast table might include things like legs of mutton in anchovy sauce, swan roast, goat, turkey stuck with cloves, pheasants, sturgeon and powdered geese jellies. One dish, called a Christmas pie, was probably the earliest example of what we know today as the turducken.

“The Christmas pie was a turkey stuffed with goose, partridge, and pigeon, all wrapped in what was called a ‘coffin of pastry’ and baked,” Tigner said. “The pastry itself wasn’t meant to be eaten. It was basically a very thick seal made from flour and water to seal out oxygen and preserve the meat.”

The pie itself, she said, would be enormous and often shaped to resemble the infant Jesus. Today, many Europeans still enjoy Christmas pies, but they’re more commonly known as mince pies and are made with dried fruits like prunes, dates and raisins.

Later, with the more widespread introduction of sugar to England during the Jacobean period, feasting evolved again to include a voidée course (“voidée” is French for “cleared”). During the voidée course, diners would clear the banquet house to enjoy elaborate sugar works that were set up for display in another area of the home, such as in a small garden house.

“In all of these cases—elaborate feasts, stuffing meat inside of more meat, a separate house just for sugar displays—it’s all about a show of wealth, but also, I think, surprise,” Tigner said. “It’s about the delight of a meal that is more than nourishing, but also can astound you.”

If you’re interested in partying during the holidays like it’s 1599, try visiting the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), which was co-founded by Tigner in 2012. EMROC is a massive collaborative effort by an international group of scholars and enthusiasts to preserve recipes written in English from about 1550-1800.

“Looking at these recipes and menus from 400 or 500 years ago allows us to contemplate how they have or have not influenced our current food practices,” Tigner said. “Even if the foods differ widely, we still understand how feasting, how eating together, is a celebration of conviviality, of commensality of companionship. After all, the meaning of the word ‘companion’ is literally ‘with bread,’ or someone with whom we share bread.”

- Written by Amber Scott—Office of Marketing, Messaging, and Engagement