Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Holidays and Their Food Traditions

Beginning with Thanksgiving and continuing to Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations, food remains a constant topic of discussion.  It seems appropriate, then, to explore food traditions during the holiday season.  Why do we serve turkey during the holidays?  In Minnesota, why is lutefisk a tradition in so many households?  Whatever happened to the traditional Christmas goose?  

A quick search of the internet provides some leads to the important question of why these foods are served on the holidays.

Lutefisk, white fish soaked in lye, is long a tradition of Norwegian foodways.  My favorite explanation of the importance of lutefisk suggests the fish reinforce the traditional image of the sturdy, strong Norwegian immigrants.  One story claims Irishmen in an effort to drive off invading Norsemen tried to poison a supply of dried white fish by pouring lye over a barrel of the fish.  By the time the poison was discovered, starving Norwegians had no choice but to wash the lye from the fish and eat.  Our hearty Norwegian ancestors discovered the fish were not spoiled and actually were palatable.  From that point on, to prove their heartiness and to memorialize the strength of their ancestors, Norwegians served lye soaked white fish, lutefisk, during the cold winter months are around Christmas.  And, tradition as born. 

The story of lutefisk may be apocryphal, the traditions around turkey and the Christmas goose also remain steeped in vague and far-fetched lore.  Most food historians agree, Pilgrims did not serve Turkey at the first Thanksgiving.  In all likelihood, turkey as the center of Thanksgiving feasts emerged from the imagination of New England author Sarah Josepha Hale.  During the Civil War, as part of her campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, Sarah Hale described the ideal Thanksgiving banquet with turkey as the centerpiece. 

Pragmatists may also favor turkey at Thanksgiving.  Unlike chickens or cattle, turkeys on a farm have limited utilitarian value.  Chickens provide eggs.  Cows produce milk.  Turkeys provide less produce on a farm.  In addition, the bird will feed a large family.

Like turkeys, the end of the Christmas Goose tradition can be traced back to the influences of literature in 19th Century Britain and the United States.  According to Slate magazine, and other internet sources, the concept of a turkey as a holiday necessity gained prominence after the publication in 1832 of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.  At the end of this story (spoiler alert!) Scrooge sends the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey to replace the Christmas goose they have planned.  Dickens, intentionally or not, suggested a Christmas goose symbolized a poor man’s dinner.  Goose was served only when a family could not afford the more exotic and expensive Christmas turkey. 

There we go.  Food traditions during the holidays reinforce a folklore and cultural practices beyond a celebration of thanksgiving and overindulgence.  Exploring the folklore and food traditions of our ancestors provides enlightening understanding of holidays past.  Now we have an opportunity to closely consider the traditions behind the foods we eat during the holidays.  

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