What's behind the Christmas feast?

It’s December, time for the Christmas holiday season. Christmas in Australia is a religious ceremony and a festival celebrating the birth of a significant religious person, Jesus Christ, some 2018 years ago.

By Jeremy Ryland


All cultures have religious ceremonies usually involving traditional feasts, and whether you are Christian or not, December, being the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, has been a time for feasts for many thousands of years. It is a time to celebrate with family and friends. It is a time of goodwill, thanksgiving, joy and family gathering around the communal table… gifts, kids, lots of food and drink, and of course time to celebrate and embrace peace.

Sharing food

Food and eating are intimately linked with culture. The sharing of food is an important social symbol in the religious and everyday life of all cultures. 


I’ve mentioned before in previous articles that feasts are important. Feasts cement agreements, treaties and alliances. We join together with family and friends to share good times with food and drink. We have feasts for birthdays, weddings, religious ceremonies, cultural ceremonies and even funerals.


The sharing of food is a sacrifice and a symbol of acceptance. Sharing food, especially rare or symbolic foods, conveys a sense of belonging, bringing people together with a special bond. 


The word "feast" is related to festival. A festival is an event usually celebrated by a group or community and is often marked with a holiday. Food is such a vital resource in any community that many festivals are associated with harvest and thanksgiving, and usually involve feasting. Feasts are an important part of human history and helped to transform hunters and gatherers into the kinds of societies that laid the foundations for early states and even industrial empires.


Christmas is a major religious festival with a traditional feast that highlights the importance of the symbolism over the logic of the meal. A feast that has developed and grown in the Northern Hemisphere where it is celebrated in winter. 

Winter tradition

Now winter, particularly in the past, is generally a time of scarcity and such a feast requires planning, consisting of many different foods – hams, turkey, chicken, pork – all of which symbolise bounty but also sacrifice due to their expense together with sweets that are associated with pleasure and complex dishes that require skill and effort that differentiate this banquet from ordinary meals. 


It is a time for extended families and close friends to come together, often travelling long distances, as did the visitors to Christ’s birth.

However, being in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas in Australia falls in the middle of summer when it is hot and dry.


You might ask why do we persist with the old Northern Hemisphere winter traditions in the height of an Australian summer?


Basically, because it is tradition! And tradition is important. Traditions convey a sense of who we are. Traditions are about culture and history. It is comforting and brings back special memories. It is “special” – above and beyond the everyday. It brings back childhood memories for older people and it is a treat for the younger ones.


Sure, sometimes we romanticise things a bit much. And for some people, Christmas may bring back sad memories, loneliness and old tensions. But for most it is a time for goodwill, bonhomie, to share, give gifts and relax a little – and sometimes to forgive and make amends. Food and feasting is a powerful symbol, a source of entertainment and a tradition of bonding.

Pagan origins


And whilst the Christmas feast is a Christian based festival, it has many pagan origins.


The traditional Christmas ham is a modern version of the traditional wild boar, which was part of the Scandinavian Yule celebrations, where a pig was sacrificed to Freyr, the god of the sun. Boar was also common at special feasts in Roman times.


Christmas pudding or plum pudding (due to the inclusion of prunes) started as plum pottage. In the pagan Yule festival, it is set alight to symbolise the rebirth of the sun after the darkness of winter. The ritual of making plum pudding has been lost a little – “stir up Sunday” was a tradition when children helped stir the mix and made wishes. A coin, thimble or dried bean was often inserted to select the leader of the festivities and bring good luck.


And from a chemical point of view, the festive pudding is not that different from wine: they both contain grapes (sultanas and raisins for the pudding) and they both contain alcohol. The maturation of a pudding and aging of wine run along the same lines. During the aging process, the many compounds in the pudding begin to break down, releasing new compounds, like aldehydes and esters, which are associated with sweet, fruity flavours and aromas. So an older, mature pudding may have a better more complex, deep and rich flavour than a young one!

Christmas in Australia

In recent years, the Christmas banquet has been adapted to suit our warmer climate but, it is still associated with the traditional rituals. 


The turkey and ham can be served cold with salads and seafood. 


Seafood has become important in Australia: over a third of Australians eat seafood on Christmas Day. Australians are expected to eat 50,000 tonnes of prawns this festive season, or 40 per cent of Australia's yearly prawn consumption. On average, 11 prawns are eaten by each man, woman and child during the festive season.*


Warm weather desserts include “plum pudding ice-cream” and pavlova. But it is still a feast and a special time. And we still follow the traditions and express our feelings for people through feeding them. 


Christmas is a time to share – even if you cannot cook, there is no need to become a slave to the kitchen.


Keep it simple! And regardless of your religious beliefs, it is a time to enjoy the spirit of goodwill, giving and sharing.


We at Gault&Millau wish you, your families, your loved ones, your staff and all the other significant people in your lives – a very happy holiday season.


Source: Seafood Industry Australia