It is always good to remember that Christmas in Britain was always a time to see in the winter and prepare for the colder months to come. The difference between then and now is the availability of food itself; when we relied on what the land gave us – what we grew and raised – every calorie was precious, especially those from fat, the best compact source of energy to see you through the winter. Now calories are too abundant and living in centrally heated homes, we have removed the need to produce as much body heat from fat. The motivation of a feast at the height of winter no longer fits with the way we live.
There is much controversy about who ‘owns’ this celebration – Christians claim it as the celebration of Christ’s birthday and Pagans as the celebration of the winter solstice; the shortest day of the year and a sign that spring will soon be on its way. It was an early Christian theme to transform the traditions of other religions into their own, as a way of converting people. The Scandinavian feast of Yule, the Pagan fir tree, the Greek figure St Nicholas, the Celtic reverence of evergreen plants – the holly and the ivy – have all been amalgamated to create the hybrid Christmas that we know.
The office party is a (not so gentle) reminder of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, an orgy of excess and debauchery which hopefully wasn’t quite that messy this year….. After the church stamped out such merriment, it wasn’t until Queen Victoria set the scene that Christmas as we know it really began. Victoria and Albert are credited with centering the period round the family, starting the Christmas card exchange and adopting the then expensive and imported turkey from the new Americas. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol popularised Christmas as a holiday period in its own right and the idea of a feast day was reborn. Whilst Victoria ate oysters and turkey, the traditional meal was usually goose or beef for those who could afford it and rabbit for the very poor.
The Coca-Cola Company sealed the modern image of Father Christmas as we recognise him now. Through their advertising campaign of 1931 came the fat, jolly, white-bearded figure we associate with the consumerist act of present giving. This seems like a rather ironic change from the thinner English version that had in turn evolved from the Norse Odin, god of intoxicating drink and ecstasy!
So full circle, the usual fare of a modern Christmas Day is a good illustration of how out of touch many of us are with food preparation. Our digestion has a hard time with modern preparation of meat – traditionally it would come from a wild animal that had been hung and cured to break down the proteins, but today it is on the plate in days and unless you are clear to buy free-range from a farm, may have had a pretty unfit life. Much of the food we eat at Christmas has its origins in the need for preserving the food we grew or reared – pickling, curing, smoking, drying, chutneys and traditional jams are often replaced by chemicals or sugary versions in cheaper or mass-produced brands.
Most Christmas desserts were originally plum based and ways of preserving the fruits from when they ripen in September. The evolution of the plum pudding as Christmas dessert charts our historical relationship with food – it started out as plum porridge an ancient throwback of celebrating the winter festival with gruel, slowly over the ages, more fruit, then alcohol and sugar was added. Unfortunately much of the excess sugar consumption we plough in around the holiday, robs rather than supports our immune capacity for fighting colds and other viruses over the winter. Also for those who’ve been making headway with weight loss plans, this can leave a feeling of self-criticism, just into those hardest months to resist comfort food.
Christmas used to be a feast to stock up on some fat and immune protection to see us through the lean months of winter. Now we have abundance aplenty all year round, noticing when the holiday enjoyment is pushing the health envelope can guide us into a more conscious and resilient new year.
- Foods in season in December include celery, red cabbage, swede, pumpkin, celeriac, turnip, sprouts, beetroot and pears – a great mixture of vitamin C and the colourful plant chemicals carotenoids to support correct immune function for the winter months ahead. Turkey and game provide tryptophan and vitamin D to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
- Remember, Christmas is not a festival of sugar! The overindulgence of sweets, chocolate, pies and cake is the worst way to see yourself through the New Year into winter – see this as a time to build your resources and help your body to ward off illness. Have the more traditional shelled nuts, fruit and make some ginger cookies and mince pies instead of the more sugar-laden commercial varieties.
- Get out into the cold – Britons watch an average of 8 hours TV a day over the holidays in our centrally-heated homes. Walking, playing and laughing outdoors will get your brain and circulation going and make your body create heat rather than store fat.
- Have a good time! In the spirit of the original celebration, do what you need to do to prepare yourself for the cold months ahead. That may be more about relaxing and recuperating than creating the perfect modern day feast.
- Laugh, laugh, laugh……enjoy good times with people you might not see that often and take time to speak to people who make you feel happy if you can’t be with them. Laughter raises the anti-stress and anti-ageing hormone DHEA and leaves us with that feel-good factor that supports the whole of our psycho-neuro-immunological systems.
Merry Christmas xxx