In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)
Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.
It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.