Edward White’s column, Off Menu, serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
These days, British and American Christmases are by and large the same hodgepodge of tradition, with relatively minor variations. This Christmas Eve, for example, when millions of American kids put out cookies and milk for Santa, children in Britain will lay out the more adult combination of mince pies and brandy for the old man many of them know as Father Christmas. For the last hundred years or so, Father Christmas has been indistinguishable from the American character of Santa Claus; two interchangeable names for the same white-bearded pensioner garbed in Coca-Cola red, delivering presents in the dead of night. But the two characters have very different roots. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was given his role of nocturnal gift-giver in medieval Netherlands. Father Christmas, however, was no holy man, but a personification of Dionysian fun: dancing, eating, late-night drinking—and the subversion of societal norms.
The earliest recognizable iteration of Father Christmas probably came in 1616 when, referring to himself as “Captain Christmas,” he appeared as the main character in Ben Jonson’s Christmas, His Masque, performed at the royal court that festive season. Nattily dressed and rotund from indulgence, he embodied Christmas as an openhearted festival of feasts and frolics. But by the time he appeared on the front cover of John Taylor’s pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas, in 1652, Father Christmas had grown skinny, mournful, and lonely, depressed by the grim fate that had befallen the most magical time of year. The days of carol singing and merrymaking were over; for the past several years Christmas across Britain had been officially canceled. The island was living through a so-called Puritan Revolution, in which the most radical changes to daily life were being attempted. Even the institution of monarchy had been discarded. As a ballad of the time put it, this was “the world turned upside down.”
The prohibitions on Christmas dining would have particularly aggrieved Robert May. One of the most skilled chefs in the land, the English-born, French-trained chef cooked Christmas dinners fit for a king—a doubly unwelcome skill in a time of republicanism and puritanism. May connected the medieval traditions of English country cooking with the early innovations of urban French gastronomy, and was at the height of his powers when the Puritan Revolution took effect. During those years, he compiled The Accomplisht Cook, an English cookbook of distinction and importance that was eventually published in 1660. In more than a thousand recipes, May recorded not only the tastes and textures of a culinary tradition, but a cultural world that he feared was being obliterated—including the Christmas dinner, an evocative sensory experience that links the holiday of four centuries ago with that of today.