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A brief history of Christmas foods and traditions

Close up of modern adult people raising glasses while enjoying Christmas dinner at home, copy space
Close up of modern adult people raising glasses while enjoying Christmas dinner at home, copy space

Christmas is a time when many of us celebrate unique cultural traditions and food almost always plays a starring role. But how did we get to how many celebrate the holiday season now?

"Our sense of Christmas really begins with the Romans at a festival called Saturnalia that celebrated Saturn [in mid-December]," says culinary historian Kyle Cherek.

He shares what a traditional Saturnalia celebration would have been like:

"It was 12 days long, [like the] 12 days of Christmas, and there were roasted nuts and dried berries and fatted calves were killed and gambling and drinking. Slaves were allowed to carouse and stay out and not to work," says Cherek.

It wasn't until Europe became more Christianized that the world saw the emergence of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ according Cherek.

When America was established, Christmas was celebrated more so in the South until it spread across the rest of the pioneering county.

Oranges have become a symbol of a prosperous winter season and St. Nicholas visiting for the holidays, according to Cherek. "Oranges are a reenactment of those bags of gold [from St. Nicholas]," he notes.

At one point in American history, oranges were considered exotic. Places like Australia, Mexico and Florida were the only contributors of oranges to the United States.

"We didn't really have a lot of citrus here for a long, long time and certainly we didn't have supply chains. So, during The Depression, for a child to just get an orange in any northern climes was an amazing gift," says Cherek.

This year supply chain issues may play a role in how the world celebrates the holidays, he notes. Things like liquor, bottle caps and flavoring are currently not being produced and may be hard to find.

"So in some passive ways your Christmas meal, however you celebrate it, will be affected and will be different. Rest assured, it's wide and it's global. It's the times we're living in. The Chinese curse and blessing is: may you live in interesting times," says Cherek.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.
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