ActiveHistory.ca is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!
The following post by Cayley Bower was originally featured on December 20, 2017
During the holidays, the food we eat is often as loaded with meaning as it is butter and sugar, which is good news for those of us looking to eat as many cookies and candies as possible in the coming weeks: it’s not over consumption, you see. It’s research. Holiday cooking is part of a web of meaning, tradition, and history, both personal and, as it turns out, national. This year, while engaging in my long-standing family tradition of purchasing the Canadian Living Holiday Baking collector’s edition and planning my Christmas baking, I realized that Canada’s Christmas food culture is deeply rooted in our imperial past, with ingredients and processes that tend toward the classically British. In fact, the desserts in Canadian Living would not be wholly unfamiliar to Sir John A Macdonald. The most recent issues of Canadian Living Holiday Baking (a fixture in my childhood home that I’ve maintained) demonstrate this clearly through the promotion of a particular vision of the holidays that is situated firmly in the Victorian era. The connection between Britishness, tradition, and the holidays is especially clear when recent recipe collections from Canada are compared to those from the United States.
The recipes in Canadian Living, one of the more popular Canadian holiday baking publications, are decidedly British in flavour and have a nineteenth-century feel in both the simplicity of the ingredients and the way they are presented in the photos; evidently, Canadian culture continues to look to Britain as the source of all things traditional. The recipes in Canadian Living are predominantly twists on classic British foods like shortbread, gingerbread, and trifle, many of which were associated with Christmas in the Victorian era after the holiday was revived after being passé for many years. According to a BBC article on the history of Christmas, “the transformation happened quickly, and came from all sectors of society” and introduced many of the traditions we now regard as integral to the holiday, including roast turkey, Christmas crackers, and the obligation to see family members that one spends the rest of the year actively avoiding. Scholars generally attribute the revival of Christmas to the cult of the Christian family that Queen Victoria perpetuated after her marriage to Prince Albert.
While many of the rituals surrounding Christmas are derived from the Victorian era, the Christmas treats seem to be some of the most enduring.