It has always been traditional to eat well at Christmas, but the fare has changed over the years and become more standardized, with a decline in regional variation. Leaving aside the lavish banquets in royal and noble households, whose swans, peacocks, and boar's heads were not found lower down the social scale, three meats dominate. Roast beef was the staple fare from the 17th century to the 19th, with ‘roast beef and plum pudding’ so frequently mentioned as to be a cliché; thereafter, goose for the poor and turkey for the wealthy was the norm. Turkey slowly spread down the social scale, becoming in the 20th century the unchallenged Christmas bird.
The iced cake was originally a Twelfth Night speciality, many other traditional cakes being eaten at Christmas in various regions (see, for example, Brears, 1987: 177–8; Morris, 1911: 217). Mince-pies are first recorded by this name in 1600, and frequently mentioned throughout that century (and ever since). At that time they were oblong or coffin-shaped, which John Selden (Table-Talk, 1686), and later writers, said represented the manger at Bethlehem; this is unlikely, as they were actually called ‘coffins’ (Dyer, 1876: 458–9). Plum pudding, or the synonymous plum porridge, is also regularly recorded from the 17th century onwards; the current idea that everyone in the household must stir it and make a wish first appears in the mid-19th century (N&Q 2s: 12 (1861), 491).
Brand, 1849: i. 526–32;Hone, 1827: i, 819–20.