I mentioned on Wednesday how “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is a popular image of the sort of food that we ought to enjoy at Christmas. And how do we know this? Because it’s in a song. Specifically the one just known as The Christmas Song, first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946.
Last Sunday I also made reference to food in Christmas songs, in this case to the already popular Christmas carols of the 16th century. The likes of the Boar’s Head Carol or the repeated demand for figgy pudding (essentially a fig heavy variant on the dried fruit Christmas Pudding we know today) in We Wish You a Merry Christmas give as clear an indication as any as to the way Tudor Christmas food is different from ours today. If the roast chestnuts of the 40s seem slightly quaintly old fashioned, then boar’s head seems positively ancient. So, how can we trace changing Christmas dining tastes through eras of song?
Essentially there are four main ages of Christmas song. The first, as I’ve just mentioned, is the classic Christmas carol of the late Middle-Ages and early Modern era – the boar’s head and figgy pudding. These, then, led on to another wave of popular Christmas song in the 19th century.
As Christmas took off in a really big way, a bunch of new festive carols were written. One of the most enduring, Good King Wenceslas, has the eponymous Bohemian aristocrat demanding food is made ready for the freezing peasant he goes out to retrieve: “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither: Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither” (hither and thither not the most brilliant rhyme really, is it?). It’s simplistic, but it definitely set a trend wherein meat and wine form a core part of the Christmas song food recommendations.
Returning to The Christmas Song, we come to the third age of Christmas songs, the 20th century standards. These are songs mostly originating in the 30s, 40s and 50s, often by a rat pack crooner of as an element of a festive film, and endlessly covered on every Christmas album since. In a later verse of Cole’s song we are also assured that “Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright”.
This isn’t the only instance in a Christmas song when a comestible is paired with mistletoe, which is kind of odd given the latter is poisonous. Most of us have, after all, had to endure years of the horrific sounds of serial inflictor of dreadful Christmas music Sir Cliff Richard enthusing about mistletoe and wine in combination with “Christian rhyme”.
On the whole, the Christmas songs of this third era come out of America and, as such, contain some Christmas foods that are maybe less common over here. Both Sleigh Ride, originally recorded by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops in 1949, and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, first recorded by 13 year old Brenda Lee in 1958, mention pumpkin pie, something that I would never really have thought to associate with Christmas. Similarly the suggestion that “I’ve got some corn for popping” in 1945’s Let it Snow suggests some rather more mundane festive fare.
In fact, as the third era of Christmas songs moved into the fourth and final one, the festive pop hit popular from the 60s onwards, there was a move to represent a more realistic view of Yuletide food than the festive fantasy of chestnuts and open fires, so perhaps a more prosaic bowl of popcorn might fit in this. The Waitresses’ 1981 hit Christmas Wrapping has its romantic couple bonding over a last minute grocery store visit for forgotten cranberries to pair with “the world’s smallest turkey”.
Meanwhile, Run-DMC’s 1987 festive hit Christmas in Hollis offers: “chicken and collard greens, rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese”. American though those specific reference points may be, it’s almost certain that this better sums up many people’s Christmas dining choices today than “bring us some figgy pudding”.