What Beast Is This?
The trouble with Christmas dinner.
Two years ago, Liesl Schillinger observed that unlike Thanksgiving, which calls for the ritual devouring of a turkey, Christmas lacks a single iconic beast. There is no one Christmas Dinner, only many Christmas dinners: goose, duck, salmon pie for the Russian Orthodox, turkey for the British. Still in pursuit of the emblematic Christmas meal, Slate has reproduced Schillinger's article below.
Six years ago, when my brother Justin brought his fiancee, Victoria, to Virginia for her first Christmas chez Schillinger, my mother marked the occasion by making a roast suckling pig. (Never mind that the entire family had gathered round the VCR the night before to watch Babe, the tear-jerking family drama about an adorable piglet who evades the knife.)
On the morning of the feast, my mother made mince pies while my father drove to the country butcher to fetch the swine. When he arrived home with the beast, there was a panic. It being December, the suckling pig had matured into a suckling hog—as big as a golden retriever—with curving sharp teeth and holes where its eyes had been. It looked like the victim in a porcine snuff film. As my mother despaired, my father had the presence of mind to grab a handsaw and divide the monster into two halves, each of which just squeaked into an oven. After it was roasted, which shrank it some, Mama laid it out on an enormous platter, covered its severed waist with a cummerbund of holly bunches, stuffed each hollow eye socket with a grape (she put Wite-out irises on them, studded with cloves for pupils), and pried its baked, fanged jaws wide enough apart to pop in a Clementine orange. When she appeared with the beast in the dining room, we all screamed. Luckily, Victoria had brought a ham—a gift from her mother, whose Southern dictum is, "Never go anywhere without a ham."
There is so much we do not understand about Christmas. For instance, why do we sing "Oh bring us some figgy pudding" every December, when if anyone were to hand some to us, we wouldn't know what it was? (And when the song "Winter Wonderland" comes over the radio, babbling, "In the meadow we can build a snowman, Then pretend that he is Parson Brown. He'll say: Are you married? We'll say: No man. But you can do the job/ When you're in town—" What does this even mean?) But the holiest mystery of all is contained in Dr. Seuss' legend, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which the Grinch descends on Whoville and makes off with the roast beast. We shed a tear for the hungry Whos, but do we stop to ask what beast it is that they habitually roast, come Noel? Is it a turkey? A steer? A pheasant, gibnut, ostrich, warthog, caribou? For that matter, what about all of us beyond Whoville? What are we expected to roast? Why is there no one beast that suggests itself for this holiday meal?
There can be no question what animal reigns on American tables at Thanksgiving. Ever since the writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale won her campaign to make Thanksgiving an official national holiday in 1863—when Abraham Lincoln at last solemnized the day—the turkey has been the undisputed creature of choice for that occasion. But there is no clear-and-away winner for the pièce de résistance that lands on tables a month later. Cathy Kaufman, culinary historian at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and senior editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, is currently writing a culinary history of Christmas in America. A lecture she likes to give at Yuletide is called "For Want of Tradition."
"There is no immutable Christmas dinner," she explained to me earlier this week. In fact, the nostalgic ideal of American Christmas plenty—"turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum puddings," and so on, ornamented with holly, mistletoe, and ivy, and enjoyed en famille, is largely a British import. In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, he created a pattern for the feast (see above) and launched an international turkey mania. After Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, observes the humble goose-and-mash fest of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, he repents for his miserliness by sending the Cratchits the prize turkey in the poulterer's window. In Europe in the mid-19th century, Kaufman explained, turkey was a "luxury bird." In Civil War-era America, as the country struggled to find unifying and binding national traditions, the mythic Christmas conjured by Dickens was adopted wholesale.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based arts writer.