Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960

Apologies if you follow my blog or even check in once-in-a-while. I haven't written a post since September. SEPTEMBER! Wow! That went by fast. Now it's the end of the year. Christmas has just past, but its spirit continues as the New Year approaches. 

So before 2012 fades into the sunset, I wanted to write a final post for the year about Christmas. This one was inspired by my cousin who, while watching A Christmas Carol on TV, sent me a message asking what might have been on the menu for Christmas dinner in mid-1800s and suggested the topic might be good for a blog post. Good idea, Cousin!

So, let's take a look at Christmas dinners in America (and a few abroad) from the 1860s to the 1960s. Each decade had its food fads and fancies, there were definitely variations through the years and not everyone had access to certain foods of the time, but Christmas dinners remained fairly traditional throughout those 100 years. 

Civil War Christmas

In the early 1860s, Christmas took on a somber tone. The Civil War meant fewer presents, loved ones missing from the dinner table, and shortages of food staples.

Christmas dinners often consisted of a main meat or two -- turkey, goose, partridge, chicken, lamb, beef/veal, smoked or boiled ham, fish -- potatoes, oysters, mince pies, cranberries, jams, chestnuts and desserts like bread and plum puddings, custards and pies.

In the years that followed the war, Christmas dinners didn't change much, though they did include some new items on the table.

The Boston Cooking-School Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer was published in 1896 and included a Christmas menu with consommé, olives, celery, bread sticks, salted pecans, roast goose, potato stuffing, applesauce, pudding, assorted cakes, bonbons, cheese, crackers and black coffee.

People living in rural areas relied mostly on home-grown foods, pickled or canned, and livestock in the barns to provide a Christmas meal.

A New Century of Celebrations

In Queen of the Household  published in 1900 and noted by (a great resource for food history), Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth suggested serving "clam or oyster soup, celery, baked fish . . . roast duck, onion sauce, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes . . . stewed tomatoes, rolls, salmon . . . plum pudding, peach pie, fruit, nuts, coffee and chocolate" for Christmas dinner.

During a trip abroad in 1909, Rochester, Michigan's Sarah Van Hoosen Jones wrote about her Christmas in Cannes. 

"We entered the room in which were 3 tables decorated with palms, oranges, dozens of roses and other flowers. The sun shone in brightly on us. First we had fried small fish, then a stuffed feathered pheasant spread . . . In front of the bird was the meat . . . After the pheasant was roast beef and potatoes, next was a cake with Joyeux Noel written on it, served with ice-cream. Lastly, we had fruit. This was our Christmas dinner in Cannes, France in the year 1909."

While many Americans enjoyed such traditional fare as roasted meats, plum puddings, cranberries and stuffing for Christmas dinner, immigrants in the U.S., as correctly points out, often celebrated the holidays with their own traditional foods. Christmas dishes might have consisted of stuffed cabbage rolls, sausages, pierogi, latkes, pasta, and a variety of cakes and cookies.

Christmas dinner in a newsboy's Bowery lodging house. Image from Century Magazine, 1912.

Christmas During the Roaring Twenties & the Great Depression

Christmas dinner in the 1920s might have featured roast goose, olives, cream of celery soup, bread sticks, souffles, lettuce salads, dressing, toasted crackers, and coffee as Helena Judson and Flora Rose offered in  The New Butterick Cook-Book, published in 1924.

The Great Depression of the 1930s mirrored the Civil War for many in the U.S. as money, food, and gifts were scarce. For those struggling to find work, Christmas dinner might have consisted of cream of peanut butter soup, roasted chicken, applesauce, potatoes, crackers, cheese, puddings or pies as suggested by Good Housekeeping Magazine in Dec. 1931 and noted by 

Photos: Farm Security Administration: Christmas dinner in the home of
Earl Pauley near Smithland, Iowa, c. 1935.

In the book, San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s, Mary E. Livingston and Frances R. Pryor noted that some others enjoyed a Christmas dinner with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, cranberry sauce, salad and pie. 

A WWII Christmas

Christmas Day Dinner 1943, USS New York, Captain Kemp C. Christian, U.S.N. Commanding.
New York, USS file, ZC files, Navy Department Library.

In the early 1940s, WWII once again demanded rationing of food and household goods. Soldiers on the front lines may have dined on canned goods like Spam for Christmas (though other soldiers and seamen fared better eating in the mess halls, tents and dinning rooms as illustrated by the 1943 US Navy menu above), while their families back home served limited meats, potatoes, vegetables, bread, candies and pies.  

Christmas in the Atomic Age

American Meat Institute Ad, c. 1950s.
Christmas dinner in the 1950s resembled most others from decades past, though cooking technology was far more advanced.  Multiple cooking ranges, refrigerators and the like inspired many a domestic chef to branch out a bit and serve a variety of traditional and non-traditional foods and beverages, including Coca-Cola and 7Up.

In the article, "Your Christmas Dinner, the Best Meal of the Year," written by Ruth Ellen Church for the Dec. 20, 1957 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune and noted by, the "best meal" consisted of "cranberry juice cocktail . . . roast turkey, sweet potato or chestnut stuffing, giblet gravy or roast prime ribs of beef . . . cranberry relish or sauce, celery stuffed with blue cheese, olives, radishes . . . fruit salad . . . rolls, eggnog, pie, port wine and coffee . . ."

So, there you have it. Christmas dinners through the years from 1860 to 1960. How did your holiday dinner compare? Similar or vastly different? Let me know in the comments if you wish. 

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas meal and holiday with family and friends. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Abhijit Sarkar said...

to be very frank with you, i m not so interested in history, but this post has attracted me a lot, and i read the whole article about how historical events and christmas dinner is linked up with each other.

Mario Moratinos said...

Un sabor especial tiene el blog.
Me gusta mucho.