Features & Stories

The Twelve Shoulds of Christmas

Food historian Annie Gray is a familiar to many through her regular appearances on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet. Annie has a passion for cookbooks, the older and more eclectic the better, and we are proud to have several of her own cookbooks on ckbk, including The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook and How to Cook the Victorian Way with Mrs Crocombe. Annie’s most recent cookbook, At Christmas We Feast (added to ckbk this week), looks at the culinary traditions and mythologies which mark the festive season, including Stir-up Sunday…

The Twelve Shoulds of Christmas

By Annie Gray

  1. Thou should make thy pudding on the last Sunday before Advent

  2. Thou should make thy cake at some undetermined time in November and make it soggy with booze

  3. Thou should eat turkey

  4. And sprouts

  5. Thou should consume thy body weight in bad snacks

  6. Thou must gather with thy family for at least several hours of eating

  7. Thou must make a large meal with many elements which will leave thy kitchen covered with pans and thy dishwasher needing a clean

  8. Largely on thine own

  9. Especially if you are a woman

  10. Thou should desire to consume at least one inappropriately pigs in blankets themed food/drink

  11. Thou should feast up to Christmas Day and thence diet, hopefully buying a newspaper or magazine supplement to aid in this yearly penance

  12. Thou should have forgotten all about it by Twelfth Night

I hope, dear reader, that at least one eyebrow is currently stuck up at the top of your forehead, and a scowl of disbelief is clouding your face. ‘Shoulds? Why should there be any shoulds at Christmas’, I hope you are crying. ‘These are all such rubbish! Culturally contrived notions which are peddled by an unimaginative media and serve to make us feel simultaneously nostalgic, excited, guilty and panicked! Throw them all away!’ Am I right? Or have you embraced one or more of these apparently sacrosanct rules, even while knowing, deep down, that there’s nothing remotely immutable about any of them?

This month sees the release in paperback of At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, along with its launch on the ckbk website. It’s a book born out of nearly two decades of giving talks on Christmas food, of working in costume talking about Christmas food and traditions, and of practicing what I preach in eschewing all of the shoulds and oughts and so-called traditions of Christmas and its food. It was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book, and I’m pleased as (Christmas) punch to share it with you.

What’s it all about? It’s a series of essays, on our most favoured Christmas foods, both now and a few which have dropped from consciousness. In them, I chart the rise – or fall – of the various elements we associate with Christmas. There are recipes and historic menus, and a conclusion in which I point out the tensions which surround our Christmas feast.

For tense it is. Full roast dinners are not that easy, especially when we keep bringing in new elements, and especially when we are cooking for far more people than normal, and especially without servants or huge kitchens. There are gender tensions – generally it is the woman (wife, mother, grandmother, whatever) who cooks, and the burden laid upon her is huge. Some people love it – for others it is an ordeal. And yet obligation and family pressure mean they still perform. 

There are tensions, too, in our choice of foods, which in some cases are underlain with uncomfortable imperialist undertones. A few years ago, Buckingham Palace released the recipe for Elizabeth II’s Christmas pudding – a scaled back version of the jingoistic Empire Christmas Pudding which was paraded round London on a flag-bedecked float in the 1930s. The British Christmas dinner was, in its time, a very showy tool of colonial superiority. 

The Empire Christmas Pudding isn’t even that good, in my view. Far better is Elizabeth Craig’s 1962 Banana Christmas Pudding (no, really, and it looks incredible). Equally, I can’t stand turkey. Judging by the fact that we only eat it once a year, I’m not alone. The trawl of 500 years of history that you’ll find in the book should convince anyone reading it that this is completely fine. Turkey’s only on our tables because it is big, impressive, in season, and tastes better than peacock. Swan, bustard, bittern, or, more legally, goose, capon, mutton and beef are (or were) perfectly good alternatives. Potatoes don’t come in until the late 18th century; sprouts are probably 1830s; mince pies did, yes, contain meat which gives the mix a complexity sadly lacking from most modern versions; and Fanny Cradock’s Christmas Omelette deserves a revival but flambéed, as per the original 19th century serving suggestion.


And oh, stir up Sunday. The BBC – the BBC(!) of all places – claims that this is a ‘centuries old tradition where home-cooks spend the last Sunday before advent ‘stirring up’ their Christmas pudding.’ Oh very very dear. It was a school child joke of the mid-19th century, part of the reinvention of Christmas as a family feast, and rarely practiced as an actual thing by ‘home-cooks’ because not having a servant meant you were working class, and most of your offspring were probably working as other people’s cooks. It gained more credence in the 20th century, partly because there’s a widespread inability to believe that people in the past could be a bit tongue-in-cheek and that they liked a bit of a pun. Read some recipes of the time – the pudding wasn’t even called a Christmas pudding until 1819, and the vast majority of authors called it plum pudding until the beginning of the 20th century. It was eaten throughout the winter, cooked when required (though could be cooked and reheated as a convenience) and served, often, alongside a joint of beef. Stir it up? Stop stirring completely, I’d say. Just do what you want and when you want – which is the central theme of the book.

Historical recipes from At Christmas We Feast


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