Twelve food superstitions of Christmas
Words & illustrations by Reena Makwana
Christmas superstitions are often connected to the food we eat during the festive season, with hopes for good fortune and plentiful harvests for the following year. Reena Makwana explains and illustrates twelve of the most curious British rituals.
1. Eat twelve mince pies, one on each day of the twelve days of Christmas at twelve different friend's houses and you will have a lucky twelve months ahead. Margaret Baker’s ‘Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore’ notes that as each mince pie is eaten, the toast ‘Happy Month’ must be uttered.
2. If you make a wish as you take the first bite of your first mince pie, your wish will come true.
3. It is unlucky to cut a mince pie as you might be cutting your luck. Take a bite instead.
4. The wishbone, or ‘merrythought’ as it was once called, is removed from the turkey and held by two people. The bone is pulled and a wish made, and the person who comes away with the largest piece when the bone is broken will gain their wish.
5. Everyone in the house should stir the pudding for luck when it is been made on ‘Stir-Up Sunday’, the Sunday closest to St Andrew’s Day. The mixture must be stirred three times and you should see the bottom of the bowl while doing so.
6. Every young woman in the household should help to stir the Christmas pudding if she wishes to be married in the twelve months ahead.
7. On Christmas Eve, the Christmas cake should be cut into slices, toasted and then soaked in spicy ale. A portion of the cake must always be reserved for Christmas Day and for New Year’s Day, otherwise you’ll be unlucky the following year.
8. If the sun shines through the trees at 12 o’clock on Christmas Day, it will be a good year for apples and a plentiful harvest when the autumn arrives.
9. Wassailing is a time for giving thanks to your crops for a good harvest and for a fruitful year to follow in the field or orchard. A large bowl was filled with cider and taken to salute the apple trees on Christmas Eve. The alcohol was splashed over roots and branches, with the farmers in fruit growing areas surrounding the trees and singing to complete the rites. Wassailing took place on Twelfth Night too, with a cake placed in the fork of a tree and cider thrown over it, as songs were sung, guns fired and pots and pans banged.
10. The wassail bowl is also presented at Christmas Eve at home, to honour the fruit trees. Much like mulled wine, it is composed of rich, spiced and sweetened wine with roasted apples floating on the top, reminding the drinkers of the orchards. According to Thomas Kibble Hervey in ‘The Book of Christmas', ale was also used, "mingled with nutmeg, ginger, toast and roasted crabs." I'm assuming crab apples!
Twelfth Night Cake
11. Kate Colquhoun’s ‘Taste: The Story of Britain Through It’s Cooking’ mentions the Tudor Twelfth Night cake as one of the earliest English spiced fruitcakes. A pea or bean was baked into the cake and the person who found it was crowned the "King or Queen of the Bean", to rule over the fun and games for the evening.
12. At the beginning of the 19th century, in the aftermath of Christmas, holly decorations were burned and ivy was carefully carried to be fed to milking cows in Shropshire.
- Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore by Margaret Baker
- The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey
- Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun
- Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions by Iona Opie & Moira Tatem
- The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland by Steve Roud