“There is a moment that comes to so many of us in the late afternoon on Christmas Day,” writes my guest Madeline Shanahan, “when we look at the postmeal dining table festooned with scrunched paper crowns, splattered with cranberry sauce and gravy, and graced with a half-eaten hacked-up plum pudding, and we are torn be- tween cracking on with the inevitable tidy-up and retreating to the sofa for a double Baileys and a snooze. In this moment we vow that we “will never eat again,” and our resolve lasts for an hour or so, until a box of Cadbury Roses chocolates is passed around and we somehow find room. If excitement and anticipation are the feelings almost universally shared by children at 5:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, being stuffed and exhausted are the ones that unite their parents come 5:00 p.m.”
Christmas turns out to have always been about feasting, even from before the time that it was Christmas. Feasting is about excess; but feasting is also about fasting, and far removed from a world of dieting. Yet Christmas celebrations retain a cultural ethic of feasting, focusing on what were luxury foods: meats, sugary things, and alcohol. These used to be luxurious because they were expensive. Now they are luxurious because they taste forbidden.
Madeline Shanahan has investigated the history of Christmas dinner as it has developed in the English-speaking world, and has shared her findings in her book Christmas Food and Feasting: A History. She has a PhD in Archaeology from University College, Dublin, and is Manager of Public History and Research for GML Heritage in Sydney. In this conversation we range far beyond the Dickensian Christmas, ranging from spiced beef in Ireland to seafood barbecues at the “Antipodal Christmas.”