The Christmas table is a battleground. Beyond archetypically opinionated relatives — even before 2017, when politics took over every aspect of our lives, it had already regularly encroached on holiday meals — the very food on the table is itself sharply contested.
Unlike other distinctly American holidays like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, Christmas is a global — albeit Christian — celebration enmeshed in local traditions and interpretations. More than the religious ceremonies, in which only some celebrants participate, it is a feast celebrating family, a year gone by and more that anchors the entire experience.
And the food that fuels that feast has never been free of politics. The dishes that dot the contemporary table reflect the enduring strength of Britain’s cultural imprint on our nation, the long-term impact of America’s culture wars and the power of agribusiness. It’s the intersection of those influences that makes the modern Christmas meal for many Americans: British culture may have created many of our ideas about the proper Christmas meal, but consumer demand for those items encouraged farmers to produce holiday favorites on an industrial scale, making them both more affordable and easier to reproduce in home kitchens.
Nearly three centuries after our declaration of independence, most of our gastronomical Christmas traditions come from the British, despite the preponderance of Christian immigrant traditions from many other places. The roast turkey is a relatively recent British tradition, first gaining popularity in the 18th century, and adopted by colonial Americans as a celebration food while the future United States was still an imperial possession. In both North America and in the Old World, turkey won an equal place with the more traditional British yuletide meal of roast beef.
A much more established British dish, the Christmas pudding — a steamed cake flavored with dried fruit — is the ancestor of the infamous American fruitcake. Christmas cookies are also rooted in British tradition, as is eggnog.
But these British culinary traditions had to overcome a number of obstacles to remain at the center of today’s American Christmas tables. One of the most significant of these was the culture war that took place over Christmas dinner over a century ago.
In many ways, the original “War on Christmas” was fought in the late 19th century when different Christian immigrant traditions — German, Italian, Polish and more — collided with these older British-influenced customs. For instance, an 1899 Christmas banquet for poor immigrants thrown by New York Sen. John Sullivan aimed to feed people living on the edge of poverty, but it also had an ulterior motive: to teach newcomers American customs, which included a table groaning with turkey.
This culture war pit elite eating habits, which were rooted in British traditions, against lower-class, immigrant culinary ones. Swedes and Danes came to America favoring whole roasted or stewed cod, while Germans served carp on Christmas Day. The French were more idiosyncratic with the main proteins, favoring different stews or roast poultry while giving all their attention to the famous bûche de Noël. Tamales played — and continue to play — a critical role in Mexican Christmas celebrations, as does pozole.
Yet these alternatives to the Christmas table could not transform the typical American Christmas dinner, losing ground in the face of immense cultural pressure to conform. That pressure continued throughout the 20th century: Nearly every film depicting Christmas during the 20th century, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” found ways to show British-inspired foods dotting the table. And virtually every form of print media did so, too. For instance, in 1969 the Baltimore Afro-American claimed “all-American” turkey made “x-mas merrier,” even though few readers had many reasons to celebrate America that year.
But British traditions didn’t only have to survive intense culture wars. In the case of roast turkey and fruitcake, they also had to survive significant technological change — a testament to how fiercely Americans fought to keep British food on their plates.
It took American farmers and food processors decades to deliver a wild bird — the turkey — in industrial quantities. Before mass-poultry production was widely available, turkeys were sourced from the countryside through massive “turkey-shoots,” in which men and hunting dogs drove birds from wooded areas and shot them down in clearings. After the locals claimed their own holiday birds, the rest traveled to urban consumers.
This made the turkey a truly special item, one worthy of the Christmas feast and available only to a small elite (the prime rib of beef was actually the economy option for 19th- and early 20th-century Americans looking to celebrate Christmas).
During the 1940s, though, postwar scientists and poultry breeders poured money and resources into creating a better “meat-type” chicken that was more like a turkey. This work provided new knowledge about turkey breeding, which allowed the North Carolina-based Butterball Turkey Co. to begin marketing new, plumper farm-raised birds in 1951. This achievement, mirrored by companies like Con-Agra, made turkeys even more affordable and plentiful.
Better freezing technologies also introduced in the 1950s helped make turkeys even easier on families’ finances, since processors could slaughter birds year-around and release them when demand was highest.
Even the fruitcake, which faced a downward trajectory in the American culinary imagination, had to be rescued to retain a place in America’s Anglo-Saxon Christmas. The steamed pudding was a natural fit for British cooks, whose pre-20th-century homes often featured hearths that accommodated large cooking pots. As a result, resourceful cooks devised sweet dishes that could be steamed above savory soups or stews.
For urban and suburban Americans in the 20th century, however, kitchens featured small-scale ovens unsuitable for the gooey traditional Christmas pudding studded with dried fruits and rum and flavored with molasses. Attempts to bake it produced the modern fruitcake, which lacked the supple texture of the British original but remained similar enough to denote the class and sophistication signified by adherence to British holiday customs. In fact, women’s magazines during the 1950s, widely read by suburban white women trying to live “the gracious life,” warned that Christmas would not be complete without a fruitcake.
The desire to perform overtly American acts — the Fourth of July has become as much a public display of patriotism as it is a private meditation on democracy — is no stranger to American life. That Christmas in America should pick up the same overtones should come as no surprise. What should, though, is the ways these “overtly American acts” are, in fact, British ones, a sign that the nation’s former imperial master continues to inform many of our habits and choices, right down to the foods we eat at the holidays.