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Friday, December 22, 2017

Cooking Up A Christmas Storm

PITIFUL HOLIDAY PICKINGS,  Depression-era photographer Russell Lee captured these rural
children eating their Christmas dinner of potato and cabbage. Although not a local family, this scene reflects the plight of many families during the Great Depression. Fortunately, local food shelves help to ease the burden of food scarcity suffered by local families.  Support your local food shelf at holiday time and throughout the year.    (Library of Congress) 

ENOUGH IS BETTER. For many families having a Christmas dinner with family and friends is central to the celebration. When dishes reflect tradition, planning the menu is easy.  Not having to deal with wartimes scarcities and empty chairs is even better.  See additional illustration below.

Journal Opinion  Dec. 20, 2018

“There were plenty of good things left….such as tend to make up a good Christmas dinner, which goes far to show that the barren hills of Vermont will produce food, with a little fixing, to be agreeable to the eye and pleasant to the taste.”  Vermont Farmer, Jan. 23, 1874

By the time you read this column, your Christmas dinner may already be prepared or perhaps it is over with even the leftovers finished. But with some of the holiday season still before us, this column offers you an opportunity to compare your festive experience with those of others who experienced Christmas dinners from colonial days to the 1950s.

Each family, past or present, creates Christmas experiences for itself. Factors such as age, economic status, ethnic heritage and family traditions and even national and world events have an impact on those experiences.

No column limited by the space available here can hope to capture all of the variations found in the assortments that are our nation’s people. Please be tolerant if it does not speak to your family’s traditions. At the same time, celebrate and cherish those traditions and pass them on to younger members of your family and community.     

The Puritans and many of their descendants who settled in our area were opposed to Christmas celebrations. Their objection was based on its connection with paganism and the Roman Catholic Church as well as the unruly manner in which the season was celebrated in Europe. No mince pies, Christmas puddings, holiday ales or goose for them. For settlers, such as those in Ryegate and Corinth, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day were more festive.

The Pilgrim Church and Church of England descendants were more likely to observe Christmas, holding services and encouraging seasonal charity. Many religious leaders, however, continued to object to the excesses of the carnival-like celebrations that were often typical of the season in many communities around the nation. 

Until the 1820’s, Christmas celebrations were largely public rather than family-oriented. As this began to change, festive foods unique to the season and served within the home became more important. Local markets catered to the holiday demand with traditional foods that helped to make the season special.  By the 1850s Vermont newspapers were carrying references to sweetmeats, eggnog, plum pudding, turkey, and oysters for the family holiday menu.   

 Christmas in wartime is especially difficult. For those in the armed services, Christmas meant being away from home. For the bedraggled troops at Valley Forge in 1777, Christmas dinner was cooked over a campfire and was likely a gruel made from whatever the men could scavenge from the nearby farms and forests.

By the Civil War, the foods of Christmas were well-established in the minds of New Hampshire and Vermont soldiers. Writing from their winter encampments, soldiers celebrated as they could while lamenting their distance from the family holiday table.

Local newspapers reported that for Christmas in 1862, President Lincoln ordered “a great quantity of poultry” for the soldiers in Washington D. C. hospitals. The following year, the Ladies Relief Society of Bradford raised funds for a similar Christmas dinner. The U. S. Sanitary Commission provided Christmas dinner for wounded soldiers from both states.

Also in 1862, it was reported that some members of the 12th Vermont Regiment, stationed in Fairfax, VA, escaped hardtack and salt pork and enjoyed a rich meal of oyster soup, potatoes, good Vermont butter and boiled pork. The meal was topped off with nuts and raisins and “a cocoa-nut cake from home.”

It was a rare respite from grueling conditions.  One soldier wrote “Now that is not such bad living for poor soldiers, is it? Sitting down to a table and eating like civilized men.”

One Union veteran recalled that, during the war, he and two of his fellow soldiers were held prisoner in a Confederate prison. For a time, prior to Christmas, the three managed to save a small portion of their daily rations of three tablespoons of cow peas and a pint of corn meal, so that on Christmas day their meager meal “took on the appearance of a feast.”

In the years following the end of the war, Christmas became even more important commercially.  Vermont newspapers such as the Vermont Watchman and the Bradford Opinion published lists of holiday goods offered by local merchants.  Foods offered included Christmas goose and turkey, canned  and fresh fruits. Since merchants were more specialized in those days, a shopper had to visit several to get the items needed.

In 1876, the Bradford newspaper featured a front-page article entitled “The Christmas Dinner.”  In addition to the items listed above, the menu included oyster soup as well as mince and pumpkin pies and Christmas tarts. 

Published at that time, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book offered an elaborate Christmas dinner menu including mock turtle soup, turkey with necklace of sausage, cranberry sauce, oyster fritters and desserts of plum pudding and tipsy cake followed by fruit and nuts.

Vermont newspaper menus of the 1880’s added other dishes with the note: “Christmas dinner is hardly complete and satisfying unless a roast turkey, in its mammoth properties occupies a conspicuous position on the table.” It also mentioned the folly in “a gorging of dyspeptic sweets and unwholesome food.”

Many of the period cook books and newspaper articles on Christmas food reflect the good fortune of those in the middle and upper classes. The wealthier the family, the more likely the quality and quantity of the foods would be more substantial.

Christmas was always less festive for the poor and homeless.  Newspapers carried stories of the plight of the less fortunate.

 In 1871, the Bradford newspaper included the story of one family whose festive meal consisted of a     5-cent loaf of bread. Another story described a family meal of corn beef, a little box of figs, boiled cabbage and coffee.

During the period after the Civil War, church and civic groups as well as some businesses provided dinner for the indigent. Baskets of food were also distributed by religious groups such as the Methodist churches and Salvation Army. Veteran groups provided meals for the neediest from their ranks. 

The demand for charity was especially great during periods of economic depression. During the panics of 1873, 1893 and 1907, Christmas was, for many people, “just one more day on which to struggle to put food on the table.”

In 1877, the Vermont Board of Agriculture was promoting the raising of geese for the Christmas trade. Still, by the end of the century, Vermont turkeys were becoming nationally known and, according to the Vermont Board, were “prolific.” 

Christmas cookies, candies and cakes were made for home or as gifts. As in the past, some Christmas foods had to be planned or even made days or months in advance. Christmas fruit cakes and plum puddings were best when aged. Rural cooks might make fruit pies in the late fall and store them to freeze in cold attics until the holidays arrived.

The first decade of the following century experienced periods of inflated food prices. In 1908, it was reported that the price of Christmas foods had doubled over the previous five years. Food purchased at local stores and eateries reflected the increases. At the St. Johnsbury House, Christmas dinner was advertised at 50 cents per person in 1908 and 75 cents two years later.

During World War I, the members of the American Expeditionary Force stationed in France  were promised a traditional Christmas meal. In 1917, the ships carrying cranberries and turkey were delayed by threats of German submarines causing the Paris turkey market to be completely depleted. Many of the soldiers stationed in England were treated to a traditional English dinner of beef and plum pudding. 

On the home front, the grim realities of war scarcity affected Christmas meals. Cooks were asked to conserve red meat and other foods fueling the war effort. Christmas fell on a Tuesday that year. It was a day designated as meatless and so chicken or turkey were acceptable foods.  

The Great Depression brought hardships for many families. A lima-bean casserole at home or soup from a charity kitchen constituted Christmas dinner for many. For others, Christmas was celebrated in a thrifty manner, with dinner being described as “enough is better than a feast.”  Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes reprinted in the United Opinion offered holiday recipes that fit frugal budgets as well as changing tastes.

When interviewed about their experiences during the 1930s, local elders recalled that money was scarce and Christmas meant homemade gifts and homegrown food. That might mean sacrificing the largest turkey or rooster on the farm or making a plump chicken into a delicious pie. For several, the food was rabbit or venison. 

During WW II, the armed services worked hard to provide a traditional Christmas meal to personnel at home and abroad. Those in battle zones were less likely to have all the trimmings. Stateside, canteens provided Christmas meals to soldiers and sailors

At home, rationing meant that Christmas dinners were not as elaborate as normal.  O, loved ones were absent. Christmas staples such as chocolate, sugar and butter were rationed and, although turkeys were not, they were in short supply. The public was encouraged to stay at home and  eat foods produced locally thereby reducing the impact on the transportation systems.

The prosperity enjoyed by many in the post-war period resulted in the expansion of the holiday experience.  Food was central to that experience and so expanded waist-lines were not uncommon.  Traditional foods made for decades continued to be part of the holidays that stretched from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Traditional foods help to make all those holidays special, linking the present with the holidays that have gone before.  For many families, Christmas day began with a special breakfast and, depending on the age of the children, was eaten before or after presents were opened.

At parties and gatherings for employees, club and church members and neighbors and friends, food was central. Every year, newspapers and magazines published new recipes that adapted old favorites to new times.

Ethnic groups have always added their own dishes to their family’s holiday table. Those who fasted before Christmas Midnight Mass, might follow the service with festive goodies.

For others, Christmas dishes included sweet stollen breads, holiday tamales, panettone or meat pies. A family with an Italian heritage might be as likely to serve lasagna and pork loin as turkey. Traditions made the answer to the question of “What shall we have for Christmas dinner?” pretty cut and dried.

For a small minority of local residents, the holiday being celebrated was Hanukkah, an eight-day festival of lights. Special foods might include brisket and short ribs as well as oil-rich potato latkes and donuts.

For many this Christmas, the local food shelf, community dinner or donated basket will be the source of their Christmas dinner. It is estimated that up to 13% of New Hampshire and Vermont families are “food insecure.” That insecurity is made even more difficult in the face of the bounty of others.

One Vermont newspaper observed in 1888: “Heaven has not granted us stomachs according to our wealth and the rich man cannot eat more than the poor man.” But we know that since finances control the food selection, the needy have always had less to eat.

 In 1891, a Londonderry, VT newspaper printed the following: “No conscientious person can enjoy his Christmas dinner if he knows anybody else within reach to be hungry. The consciousness that we have giving food to the needy provides us with the finest appetite.”

Whether this holiday for you is sacred or secular or both, assisting those who face food shortage in your community can add to the blessings of the season. Even if you are too late to help with someone else’s Christmas dinner this year, remember there is a new year coming. That donation to your local food shelf will provide you and yours with finer and more satisfying appetites.


Since the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas dinner has been a perennial subject of cards and newspaper illustrations.  Whether way on military duty or around the family table, Christmas festive treats bring warmth to the winter season.

Union troops open Christmas boxes from home to reveal treats as well as welcome gifts of socks and other article of clothes.

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