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No, The Victorians Didn't Invent Christmas (But They Get A Lot Of Credit For It)

The American idea of Christmas is most closely tied to the English idea of the holiday, according to food historian Kyle Cherek.

Holidays are often associated with food — think of the American Thanksgiving or the Chinese New Year. Christmas celebrations also offer us many opportunities to celebrate our various cultural traditions through food. Whether it's gingerbread, candy canes, or eggnog, there are many delicious things that make Christmas special.

Culinary historian Kyle Cherek says Charles Dickens often gets credit for popularizing what we now consider traditional Christmas foods here in the United States. But Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. The effort to make it a more family friendly holiday was happening here earlier in the century.

"In the 1820s in both England and America, Christmas was more a rowdy, drinking, feasting, woohoo kind of thing," Cherek explains. "Think of marauding bands of young men strolling down the streets, singing carols and swaying with their pints of ale and beer."

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Christmas didn't become the more family oriented holiday we know today until the Knickerbockers, a writers group in New York City, deliberately wrote stories of families sitting down to a holiday table. And that's where some of the Christmas traditions we adhere to today began. The Knickerbockers didn't proscribe particular foods, but they did write that this style of eating and drinking should happen at Christmas, that greenery in the form of holly and evergreens should be present, and that hospitality — especially toward people you didn't know — was expected.

We can thank the Scandinavian and Germanic tribes for things like Christmas trees, the Boar's Head, the fatted goose, and the yule log. Those items were part of a midwinter Yule celebration that had been going on in that part of the world for many centuries before they became Christianized. And the Romans had Saturnalia and Sol Invictus (the return of the Sun), which involved a lot of feasting, drinking, and gift giving.

But circling back to Dickens, Cherek says our American idea of Christmas is most closely tied to the English idea of the holiday. The English who settled in the American south were the ones who hewed most closely to those traditions — and it was during the Victorian period that the rest of the country also fell in love with them.

So as you sit down to your Christmas feast, have an eggnog and exchange gifts — thank the Romans, the Norse, the English, and, yes, Charles Dickens. 

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle 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.