Introduction: In this article – the first in a series of four – Jessica Edwards describes some of the many superstitions our ancestors had about Christmas, focusing in this article on holiday food. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 30,400 people to her family tree!
People who are superstitious (even a little) have to contend with their beliefs even at Christmas time. According to the website Transect science, superstition can be defined as:
“A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.”
In this series of four articles, I will talk about some Christmas superstitions that may be mentioned by relatives in their diaries and journals – or that family members may still practice today – that have been handed down from their ancestors.
Some of these superstitions/traditions have come down to us from the pre-Christian period, and were created to help protect one spiritually during that time of the year known for being cold and dark. In the depth of winter, people worried about omens and evil spirits attacking them and/or their family (usually in the form of illness or death).
Things changed over time and people began to see these beliefs as fallacies. However, some people still follow them either for fun or for tradition’s sake. Do you do any of these practices, or did your ancestors?
This first group of superstitions/beliefs deal with food.
A well-known dessert was called “Christmas Pudding” (similar to a super-rich fruitcake that is covered in what is called a “hard sauce” made from butter, powdered sugar, and whiskey). This was a dish that all the family members and any members of the household (including servants, even the children) helped to stir. The stirring had to be done in such a way that the bottom of the container was visible with every stir. Every time someone stirred the pudding it was mandatory to make a wish, which was expected to come true in the following year. In some households each person stirred the pudding 12 times – a wish for each month of the following year. It was believed that if an unmarried person forgot to stir the pudding, the chances of them meeting their partner the following year greatly lessened. If the pudding was a plum pudding, it was believed that you would not lose any friends before the next Christmas.
Pies were a common subject for beliefs. Mincemeat pies originated in medieval England, created by knights returning from the Crusades who brought back spices. These pies contained bits of meat from a range of animals, plus suet, apples, sugar, raisins, and molasses. It was believed that the amount of mincemeat one ate before, during, and after Christmas would foretell how much good luck you would have in the coming year.
Other superstitions included the belief that the number of types of pies you tried at Christmas time was directly tied to the number of months of happiness you would have in the coming year. And woe to the person who refused to eat a Christmas pie that was offered, as you were considered to be refusing good luck – so your next year would be filled with bad luck!
Sometimes people added small items when preparing their pies. If the eater (chewing cautiously, one hopes) bit into a silver ring, it foretold an upcoming marriage in their family or for them. If one found a thimble, then a new friend would come into your life. Finding coins in your pie meant you would have wealth in the next year. Once you were served your pie, it was believed that cutting it with a knife would break your luck – so many people preferred eating their pies by just biting into them so that their luck stayed intact.
Another common dessert at Christmas is what was termed “Christmas Cake,” which was usually different as compared to what we call cake today. In earlier times the Christmas cake was very similar to what we now call “fruit cake.” The superstitions dealing with this subject not only dealt with the eating of it but also the baking of it. Again, all of the family members were expected to help the main baker in the stirring of the cake mix – each stirring the batter three times while wishing for a gift from Santa Claus.
Another unusual thing about the cakes made in some areas at Christmas time in the past were the creation of what was called a “dumb cake” by bachelors and “spinsters” on Christmas Eve. This cake had to be made in complete silence and the person had to leave their initials on the cake. If done according to these rules the initials of a future spouse of the person would somehow appear on the cake during the baking.
You might see a person setting aside a piece of the Christmas cake to be eaten on New Year’s Day, as it was believed that if you did not you were inviting bad luck for the next year. You had to be careful during the baking and cooling of the cake because it was believed that if a piece of the cake fell to the floor before serving it, someone in the family would fall sick or be injured. Also, if the cake was too brittle, dry, or broke all together, someone in the family would be leaving for a trip soon.
Also, Christmas cake cut before the sun came up on Christmas Eve day brought bad luck. It was believed that you had to eat at least some of the cake on Christmas Eve. These beliefs were very big in Scotland especially.
Another item baked for the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day celebrations was called “Christmas Bread.” In my research I found a number of types and recipes for this dish, but one superstition in common to most cultures was that the Christmas bread was believed to have healing powers – which was one of the main reasons why it was kept in the house for about a year. It was preserved to protect the family members as well as everyone residing in the building. Another belief was that a bread loaf left on the table after Christmas Eve ensured abundance of bread in the upcoming year.
To be continued…
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Note on the header image: a Christmas pudding being flamed after brandy has been poured over it. Credit: Matt Riggott; Wikimedia Commons.