Zoe Herrmann, ‘24
Despite the size of the U.S. along with the variety of winter traditions celebrated, the typical American Christmas meal has remained somewhat similar throughout the years. With few exceptions, the cookies, pies, hams, and eggnog have remained staples of the Christmas celebration since colonial times. But how has the traditional American Christmas meal changed?
The traditional Christmas meal has barely changed between the late 1600s and 1950. This meal often consisted of oysters, meat pies, onion or fish soup, and some kind of fruit cake or pudding. Oysters were a large part of the traditional Christmas meal and were considered a treasure. Crabs, oysters, and varying types of fish were common due to their easy availability, but the presence of fish in the traditional American Christmas meal would dwindle in popularity moving into the 1950s.
Since the 1950s seafood became more popular as a Christmas Eve meal, with the Italian “feast of the seven fishes” and the southern and New England oyster and clam traditions. In addition to seafood, goose, lamb, ham, turkey, and the occasional partridge were commonly served for the Christmas meal. From the late 1600s to the 1950s, mass immigration greatly impacted Christmas traditions. Though the Germans are often credited with most American Christmas traditions, Italian and British cultures also contributed. In fact, the common Christmas tradition of spiked eggnog was a tradition in England, though American colonists began adding rum, with George Washington having his own popular spiked eggnog recipe. Though these were all common meals from the 1680s to the 1950s, meals were often based on what the family had access to. The traditional meal for the average family was much simpler during the Revolutionary and Civil War, and the decadent meal of seafood, elaborate meats, and pies was reserved only for the elite class.
In the 1950s, the automated candy cane machine was created, and it was one of the inventions that highlighted the changes that would occur in the traditional American Christmas menu. After the 1950s, the varied Christmas dinners of seafood and assorted meats were abandoned for a more store-bought Christmas. The American Christmas dinner now mirrored the traditional thanksgiving meal: turkey, ham, green beans, potatoes, stuffing, pudding, cake, and some seasonal drink. The 1960s also introduced the beginning of dishes specific to the decade including, broccoli casserole (popularized in the 50s), Tutti-frutti Tortoni (introduced in the 70s), and Beer-Cheese Pinecones (common in the 80s). The more commercialized and store-bought Christmas maintained the traditional thanksgiving-like meals and added the easily accessible manufactured foods which continue to be common today, such as store-bought Christmas cookies and gingerbread. The 1970s and 80s introduced simpler and less traditionally Christmas meals such as Tricolor Pizza, hot cheddar puffs, and cheese fondue.
Though the traditional American Christmas dinner changes considerably depending on the region (many southerners still celebrate with oysters just like the colonists) , the majority of the customary Christmas meals have stayed the same. Whether or not your family celebrates Christmas, try one of these traditional Christmas dishes this year during winter break!