Preferences, fashions change the taste of Christmas

In Colonial New Zealand, plum pudding was an essential Christmas food. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
In Colonial New Zealand, plum pudding was an essential Christmas food. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

These days, Christmas and New Year have become such important celebrations and holidays that it's strange to realise that they weren't always so.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith

In fact, the Scottish Free Church founders of Otago ignored Christmas although they celebrated New Year's Eve, which they called Hogmanay.

In contrast, the Anglican settlers celebrated Christmas, but New Year, at least in the early days, was not a holiday, according to Ali Clarke, author of Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth century New Zealand.

The Dunedin historian explains that in medieval Europe, Christmas and New Year were part of a long festive season known as the 12 Days of Christmas.

"The idea of Christmas being a family time is a Victorian thing, because before that it was much more of a community celebration. You still get signs of that in the early colonial days here - big gatherings at hotels and so on for Christmas.''

However, because New Zealand officially adopted English public holidays, which included Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, in 1873, even those who didn't keep Christmas as a religious festival adopted some of its secular aspects. But they also had to cope with midsummer instead of a midwinter celebrations.

"Migrants who came here had a lot of difficulty coping with the idea of the change of seasons for the holiday. It was a really big deal. It was just a reminder of how far away they were and how distant they were from their old life,'' she said.

Ali Clarke. Photo: supplied
Ali Clarke. Photo: supplied

The foods enjoyed at Christmas in the 19th century have also changed, partly because of the seasonal difference and changing preferences and fashions, but also because new foods such as turkey or salmon became available in the 20th century.

When the English first arrived in New Zealand, they preferred to eat traditional roast beef and plum pudding at Christmas, but soon added strawberries and cream. As gardens were established, there was pressure to plant potatoes and peas to be ready for Christmas, Dr Clarke said.

However, in colonial times plum pudding was the essential Christmas food.

"There are great stories of people in the goldfields cooking their plum pudding in their billy on their campfire. It was a sign of complete poverty if you couldn't afford a plum pudding. I found a story of someone who was out in the wilderness and obviously had no fruit to put in their plum pudding and that was the ultimate disaster,'' Dr Clarke said.

Plum pudding was a democratic dish as the ingredients didn't need to be extravagant or expensive and you didn't need an oven to cook it because the dough, filled with dried fruit, was wrapped in a cloth and boiled.

Now, of course, Christmas cake is a favourite treat over the Christmas period.

It became popular in the early 20th century, as Helen Leach, Mary Brown and Raelene Inglis show in their book The twelve cakes of Christmas. It developed from "twelfth cakes'', which were served for Twelfth Night celebrations and only became known as Christmas cake in the mid-19th century.

Scots may have ignored Christmas but they celebrated Hogmanay with gusto - often with bands, fireworks and guns.

Others saw the old year out and welcomed in the new at home with friends, perhaps being visited by an acquaintance "first footing'' - the first person to cross their threshold after midnight.

There were particular sorts of people who were luckier for first footing. Some believed that a dark-haired man bearing whisky was best. First footing was also a tradition in northern England, but it is difficult to determine how common it was in New Zealand, Dr Clarke said.

A wee dram and Scottish specialties, such as shortbread or haggis, might have been eaten, but black bun or Scotch bun was a particular Hogmanay tradition. This was a spiced fruit cake wrapped in pastry and baked. Traditionally black pepper was included among the spices. Like Christmas cake, it kept well and was recommended for sending to soldiers serving overseas.

There were different varieties of Scotch bun. Older versions had fruit and spices added to three-quarters of a buttery bread dough which was then wrapped in the plain bread dough and baked. Later recipes were for a rich fruitcake baked in a pastry case, she said.

"Baking is a very popular Scottish thing and I'm sure the high Scottish migration to New Zealand had a big impact on our baking traditions.''

Because Christmas and New Year are in summer in the southern hemisphere, unlike in Britain where it is midwinter, new traditions developed, such as eating outside, which many of us do now if the weather is kind. It might be a family Christmas dinner in the garden or a picnic at the beach, but 100 years ago it was likely to be a community picnic on Boxing Day or New Year's Day.

"You'd find in small rural communities there'd be a popular picnic spot in the neighbourhood and everyone would gather there on New Year's day,'' said Dr Clarke.

"Here in Otago and Southland the Caledonian games were a really big deal, they could be at New Year and in some places on Boxing Day.''

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