NOTE: While I had originally intended for this to be one post, I’ve decided to make it two due to extreme length. I’ll put the bibliography in Part the Second. Enjoy.
This year I went to my first real Christmas party. There was food and drink and games and even a little bit of awkwardness. We were playing Christmas trivia and one of the questions was “What is the traditional American Christmas dinner?” I, in my infinite food history genius, knew at once the answer was turkey. Which obviously it was. However, nearly all of the 20 or so people at the party insisted that the traditional meal was ham.
Uuuuh, no you’re all wrong, I’m right, don’t argue with me because I am a food history virtuoso.
When I think of Christmas dinner, I think of bird. I’ve had ham before and we even had beef wellington the last two years (YES MEAT WRAPPED IN PASTRY I LOVE YOU). But if I were to imagine a traditional Christmas dinner I would think of a Norman Rockwell-esque Nuclear Family sitting around their dining room table with a huge steaming turkey in the middle.
That’s the image I grew up with.
The turkey wasn’t the first Christmas bird. No, indeed, he was not. The Christmas turkey comes from a long line of Christmas birds, all of varying degrees of edibility and deliciousness. Obviously, the turkey knew something the rest didn’t cause he stuck around.
One of the first festive birds was the goose. Goose served at Christmas can be traced directly back to goose used for pagan solar celebrations and were common sacrifices to the pagan gods of old. Geese are migratory birds and follow the sun when going south in the winter and north in the summer, confirming (in the minds of ancient pagans) that geese were spiritually connected to the sun. They appeared and disappeared at important times of the solar and agricultural year, making them an ideal sacrifice and feast item at festivals associated with solar movements. Goose’s original purpose as a sacrifice was to honor of the spirit(s) of vegetation since their migratory pattern followed the changing of the seasons. Ritual consumption followed the ritual sacrifices, as well as plentiful drinking.
Ancient peoples in Europe, Central Asia, North America, and North Africa sacrificed geese at the turn of the seasons. The Egyptians recognized the goose as a solar symbol and associated it with sun gods such as Ra, who was hatched from an egg laid by a primordial goose in the Nile. The goose, called the Great Cackler, first broke the silence of the world and once hatched, Ra created the cosmos. Geese were sacrificed to Isis and Osiris in the autumn, and the priests of the two gods would feast on its flesh. Isis was the Egyptian goddess of nature and Osiris was the god of death, making them a perfect pair when it came to agricultural “death” and “rebirth.” The story of the goose that laid the golden egg probably stemmed from the ancient solar myths and symbolism, like the one of Ra.
The Chinese believed the goose represented yang, the force of fire and solar power and ate geese during rituals held at dawn and dusk. Like the Egyptians, the Scandinavians, Celts, and Slavs ate goose on important feast days. It was eaten during Celtic Samhain (Halloween) and the Germanic Yule, which was originally the first day of the New Year (now November 1st). Even the traditional meal of Hanukkah, or the Feast of the Maccabees, is roast goose.
In the very early Middle Ages, roast goose eaten during a Germanic harvest festival, called Erntedankfest, as a thank you to their spirits of vegetation, the gods Odin and Thor. The ancient Greeks feasted on goose to ensure the regeneration of nature after she went underground for winter, paralleling the Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. The sacrifice guaranteed a good harvest in the months to come. Not to mention the goose was sacred to Aphrodite, who later became a manifestation of the Goddess in Old Europe. In fact, she may have become Mother Goose after the Christianization of Europe. In Rome, geese were sacred to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Around 389BC, a flock of geese woke Roman defenders and alerted them to a stealth attack by the Guals, essentially saving the Roman Empire.
The most famous (and one of the earliest) goose feast is Michaelmas/Martinmas, the ritual feast of the winter solstice that commemorates St. Martin, the patron saint of (among other things) geese. Michaelmas is a sort of continuation of Samhain and Germanic Yule. It occurs during the winter solstice and celebrates the end of the harvest and change of season. These days it’s celebrated on November 11th. Bavarians would eat goose on St. Martin’s Day and then use the breastbone to predict whether or not the winter would be harsh or mild, wet or dry. Some people used the color of the goose’s breast meat to determine what the winter would be like. A white breast meant there would be snow while brown meant the winter would be very, very cold. The same tradition was upheld in Germany, but there isn’t much agreement on what the colors mean.
Let’s all take a moment and appreciate how important the goose was and how much we hate them now.
HOW DARE THOSE GEESE HARM AIRPLANES BY BEING SHREDDED TO DEATH BY AIRPLANE ENGINES. THE NERVE.
Anyhow, goose was kind of a big deal in ancient times. Once medieval times rolled around, the goose was still considered a feast bird, but other birds had taken its place as the most festive. Fowl, both wild and tame, were considered a great delicacy that people did not get to enjoy everyday; the same way we don’t eat steak everyday. Contrarily, medieval folks would eat a lot of beef and mutton. Could you imagine having steak everyday? My quality of life (and cholesterol) would skyrocket.
Most fowl were considered in season between October and Lent, so eating them at Christmas as a festive meal was not only connected to pagan traditions of eating goose, but it also made sense. Fowl were popular Christmas gifts, particularly during Twelfth Night, which is why 184 of the 364 gifts given in “The 12 Days of Christmas” are some type of bird, including geese and swans (another medieval Christmas bird).
Serving large, overstuffed fowl for Christmas stems from earlier cultural practices. The larger the bird, the more festive it was considered. Christmas birds depended on wealth. The rich liked peacock and swan, while the less wealthy used herons and bustards. Every fowl had its season and were said to be “in good grease” or fattened when they were ready to be slaughtered and eaten. “Peacocks be ever good, but when they be young and of a good stature, they be as good as pheasants…Cygnets [young swan] be best between All Halloween day and Lent” (Wilson, 121).
Each type of fowl, including peacock, swan, and goose, had very specific cooking instructions in medieval times. The most popular method of cooking wild fowl was roasting. Large birds with dark meat were brown roasted, meaning they were cooked for a long time before a slow fire, usually turning on a meat spit. There were even special spits for smaller birds, like doves and blackbirds. Certain birds were easier than others to cook. For example, it was easier to cook goose than duck because goose fat turns to liquid at a lower Fahrenheit, also making it easier to eat.
In the 12th century, each roasted bird had it’s own special sauce (no, it’s not thousand island dressing) and their blood was sometimes saved to color sauces. The “domestic” or stubble goose required a garlic sauce made with wine or verjuice, an acidic juice made of unripe grapes or crabapples. Using a garlic based sauce continued to be popular in Elizabethan times because “any goose be eaten above four months old, it is badly digested without garlic sauce, exercise, and strong drink” (Wilson, 122).
Two other frequently used goose sauces were sauce Madame and gauncil. Sauce Madame was made by stuffing the goose with herbs, quinces, pears, garlic, and grapes. The bird was sewn shut and roasted. Once it was cooked and carved, the forcemeat (stuffing) was combined with wine and spices to make a sauce. A similar sauce was green sauce, made with green wheat, gooseberries, and melted butter and served with green (young) goose. Green goose could also be served with a sorrel sauce and stubble goose with mustard and vinegar. Gauncil was a simple thick, flour-based sauce, similar to a béchamel. Swan was usually served in a blood-based sauce called chawdron.
Most birds were stuffed before cooking. In the 17th century, birds were stuffed with breadcrumbs, minced meat, herbs, spices, and dried fruit, like crystalized orange. By the 18th century, the fruit had been omitted but oyster stuffing and chestnut stuffing with bacon and the bird’s own liver had become fashionable. Like sauce Madame, stuffings were sometimes used to make a bread-based sauce for the bird.
During the Middle Ages, each type of bird had its own carving techniques and terminology. One would “rear that goose,” “lift that swan,” and “disfigure that peacock.” Oh yes, they disfigured that peacock. In fancier households, the dictated carving techniques were closely adhered to and all the meat had to be shredded and served in the correct sauce. In smaller homes, there was less ceremony when it came to carving and serving.
Peacock was usually “served up in its hackle,” meaning it was still feathered. The process was complicated:
“Take a peacock, break his neck and cut his throat, and flay him, the skin and feathers together, and the head still to the skin of the neck, and keep the skin and the feathers whole together; draw him as an hen, and keep the bone to the neck whole, and roast him. And set the bone of the neck above the broach, as he was wont to sit alive, and bow the legs to the body, as he was wont to sit alive; and when he is roasted enough, take him off, and let him cool; and then wind the skin with the feathers and the tail about the body, and serve him forth as he were alive” (Wilson, 125).
Occasionally the peacock would be decorated and have their combs gilded, but only when people were feeling really extravagant. Because serving a bird fully feathered is no big deal.
Cue facial expression.
Peahens and peachicks were considered an acceptable, although less colorful, substitute for the peacock when it came to less important guests. Between 1274 and 1634, peacocks were the most expensive bird available according to tariff records kept by members of the Company of Poulters. Quick note, poultry dealing was recognized as a specialized trade in London, and the Company of Poulters, a poultry guild, was established at the end of the 13th century. In order to keep a handle on the selling situation and to reduce competition between poulterers, prices for birds were legally fixed. Swan, cygnet, and turkey were the costliest birds.
A section of London was designated to poultry sellers. The stench was unbelievable and no one wanted to be near them. Chances are, despite fowl being an expensive luxury, only the poor lived near the stinking market. The area where the shops used to be is still called The Poultry.
By the 17th century peacock was completely abandoned as a Christmas dish. They had always been tough to prepare and eat (literally – the meat was tough) and killing it days in advance (sometimes up to 15) didn’t help much. “Peacock flesh was condemned by the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms [doctors], on the grounds that it was hard and not easily digested” (Wilson, 116). It was still used as the center piece in many Middle Age feasts and younger birds and peachicks were eaten as a curiosity on occasion, but it was recommended that they were fed corn and killed 3-4 weeks before serving.
The peacock carries some significant symbolism. Its presence in nativity art is meant to symbolize immortality, which comes from the belief that peacock flesh never rots and its tail can renew itself. So, obviously, killing the bird in advance and keeping it for…like…ever posed no health threats because it would never go bad. Eating a whole peacock was said to make one immortal, probably because the meat was so tough to digest (not to mention the beak and feathers) that God was like “I am so impressed I’m just gonna make that guy immortal.”
Swan was more popular with noble families than peacocks and was appointed for special occasions. It was roasted like goose and served with a chawdron sauce, but wasn’t a spectacle the way a peacock was. It was rarely brought to the table whole with its feathers, but when it was its beak would be gilded and stuffed with a piece of alcohol soaked bread. The bread would be set on fire for an impressive effect as it was carried to the table. Normally the swan’s neck was cut off and sometimes stuffed and served separately as “pudding de swan neck.” However, like peacock meat, swan meat was tough and not very tasty. It was eaten at feasts up until the 17th century, but after they were only kept live for beauty’s sake. Cygnets, or young swans, were considered very good because their meat was less tough, but only if they were fattened by being fed oats. They were sold from 1575 onwards.
For those that could not afford swan or peacock, there was the old standby: goose or chicken. At rich feasts it was common for all three birds to be served, but the everyman could only afford one. Yeoman farmers and even ploughman had goose at Christmas. The native goose of Britain is the grey leg variety, which was kept by the Celts for pleasure. In the later medieval period, goose was considered in season twice a year – in the early summer as a young or “green” goose and around Michaelmas when it was fattened up. The goose feast had come to characterize holiday celebrations and, since it was in season around the time, made it a perfect choice for Michaelmas and, later, Christmas. The Michaelmas goose was served with applesauce, rather than a garlicky sauce. Before being brought to market, the birds were force fed oatmeal, barleymeal, or ground malt to fatten them up some more.
While it wasn’t a swan or a peacock, the goose was a coveted bird, so in medieval times it was available only to the rich, middle class, and some of the working class. The poor were out of luck. Those who couldn’t afford to buy a goose could choose to become members of a “goose club,” which were run at most public houses. Goose clubs were a way to save money throughout the year for Christmas dinner. Every week, poorer and working class families would make a small investment, maybe a few pence at most, to their club until they could afford to buy a goose. On Christmas day, local bakers stayed open to cook geese for members of Goose Clubs.(source)
In 1588, Elizabeth I decreed that everyone should have a goose for their Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner was the first meal after her victory against the Spanish Armada and she considered it commemorative of the British sailors who lost their lives. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the majority of her citizens could not carry it out because goose could be expensive and goose clubs had yet to be formed. From then on, goose became the traditional Christmas meat in England, Alsace, and Denmark. It was such a popular Christmas dish that in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery of the Christmas goose that swallowed a jewel.
Here are a couple fun facts about geese, which may or may not be true. In any case, they’re pretty interesting:
- Sixteenth century scholar, Jules Cesar Scaliger, is quoted as saying that “geese lower their heads in order to pass under a bridge, no matter how high its arches are.”
- Alexandre Dumas, the historical novelist and gastronomic storyteller, wrote that “they have so much foresight that when they pass over Mount Taurus, which abounds in eagles, each goose will take a stone in its beak. Knowing what chatterboxes they are, they ensure, by thus constraining themselves, that they will not emit the sounds which would cause their enemies to discover them.”
- According to Dumas, a French chemist “saw a goose turning a spit on which a turkey was roasting. She was holding the end of the spit in her beak; and by sticking out and pulling back her neck, produced the same effect as the use of an arm. All she needed was to be given a drink from time to time.”
Not many people eat goose for Christmas these days. You get a few here and there, but most of the world eats a goofy bird that makes a goofy noise and is pretty darn goofy overall.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Until then, keep eating and asking, my friends.
*For reference, this is how much Kristen Bell loves sloths: