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Karen Davison explains the origins of traditional holiday favorites

2nd December 2020 Print

Do you ever wonder why we eat turkey on Christmas? What about eating fruitcake or mincemeat or drinking eggnog? There are so many different dishes that are synonymous with the holiday season and yet we have no idea how it came to be this way. That is why the subject of this article is the origins of the classic holiday dishes we know and love. 

Professional chef and culinary blogger from Plano, Texas, Karen Davison has worked in restaurants all over America and loves cooking holiday meals for her loved ones. She explores the humble beginnings of many of the traditional dishes we enjoy around the holidays. 


Karen Davison of Plano, Texas, claims that historically, roast goose was the bird of choice at holiday celebrations. However, over time, access to healthcare improved, as did life expectancy, which meant that families were growing and more people needed to be fed come Christmastime. Therefore, the reason that turkey became popular was because it was larger than a goose and also less expensive to raise than other birds. Turkeys were typically born in the spring and then had months until Thanksgiving or Christmas to grow. It really wasn’t until the 19th century that turkey became commonplace in both British and American households through the holidays.


Believe it or not, the first known recipe for gingerbread cookies dates back to 2400 BCE. It hailed from Greece, but over time, it made its way to England and the recipe was changed. In modern history, Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the festive holiday treat. Gingerbread quickly became a popular treat year-round, however, owing to the Queen’s decorating idea, some people started decorating them very elaborately, which is perhaps why they became synonymous with special occasions, shares Karen Davison. 

Apple Cider

The story goes that Julius Caesar first discovered the British drinking cider back in 55 BCE. Flash forward to the Europeans bringing the tradition of apple cider to the New World (that’s right, they loved it so much it was something the settlers wanted to cultivate in North America). By the early 20th century, refrigeration had improved to the point that it was possible for humans to consume the unfermented juice of apples, which they started to call cider.  

Plum Pudding

Plum pudding, also referred to as Christmas pudding, is a traditional dessert associated with Britain. Today, it contains an assortment of dried fruit, including raisins and currants, as well as spices, almonds, citrus zest, and suet. The origins of plum pudding are rather interesting. The tradition of eating the dessert on Christmas began with a decree issued by the Roman Catholic Church saying that a 13-ingredient pudding must be made representing Christ and the apostles. This pudding was then made on the Sunday before the start of the advent season. Although it’s called plum pudding, plum was really a stand-in for any type of dried fruit, hence why it now more commonly contains raisins or currents, rather than prunes.

Buche de Noel

The buche de Noel is one of Karen Davison’s absolute favorite holiday treats. It is a log-shaped cake, usually covered in chocolate frosting or ganache, that originated in France. It is meant to resemble the wood log that used to burn in European homes around Christmastime (yule meaning yuletide season, or Christmas). Although they look complicated to make, they actually aren’t as hard as they look. The cake itself is typically a genoise sponge layered with mousse or buttercream. This is also a great holiday dessert to decorate with kids, as they will love creating little fondant mushrooms, holly leaves, or forest creatures to accompany the cake.


There is evidence to suggest that eggnog was served as far back as the 17th century. However, it was a little different than what we know it as today. Nogs were a popular drink for special occasions in Britain, as a way of toasting to the health of all those celebrating. Thus, they were a natural choice for a cheery Christmas toast. However, back then, nog was a mix of wine or ale, spices, and milk (only sometimes was egg or cream added — and there was no rum in sight). The frothy, rum-filled, custard-like eggnog we know and love today was a more recent American invention, shares Karen Davison. Further, the ingredients in traditional British nog were luxury items at the time, and so only aristocrats and monks had the privilege of drinking it around the holidays. 


Did you know that fruitcake dates all the way back to the Middle Ages? That’s right, Karen Davison of Plano, Texas shares that back then, dry fruit and sugar were very expensive to import, so when people did so, it was seen as a big deal. That is why fruitcakes were saved for special occasions (they were even a popular wedding cake back in the day). They were seen as very luxurious owing to the high content of fruit and sugar in them, given how expensive these ingredients were to obtain. In addition, baking a cake was no easy feat at the time, given that wood burning ovens were the only option and they were hard to regulate. Thus, the ingredients that fruitcake contained and the method in which it was baked all made it a very special treat, which is why it has become synonymous with Christmastime.


Does mincemeat really contain meat? The answer today is no, but in the past, it was a resounding yes. When mincemeat first came to be, the festive British dessert was made with dried fruit, sugar, spices, and, you guessed it, chopped up meat. According to chef Karen Davison, mincemeat was really seen as a way of using up leftovers, rather than a special dessert in and of itself. Over time, people started including less and less meat in their mincemeat until today, when meat is seldom found in any mincemeat pie. The closest some recipes get to including meat is suet, otherwise known as the raw fat from beef or mutton, but chef Karen Davison assures you that it’s just fine to use regular old butter.