A Christmas ham or Yule ham is a traditional ham dish associated with modern Christmas, Yule and Fennoscandian Jul. It is a ham from a pig that has been cured and sometimes smoked, that is cooked either in the oven or boiled (the broth is often saved for Christmas Eve to be used as a sop). It is traditionally in the Nordic countries coated with a layer of mustard mixed with eggs and breaded with breadcrumbs.
The tradition is suggested to have begun among the Germanic peoples as a tribute to Freyr, a god in Germanic Paganism associated with boars, harvest and fertility. It was later popularized by the Catholic Church as a test of truthful conversion from Judaism. Backsliding Marranos would decline to eat the Christmas ham, while authentic converts could enjoy the pig meat with equanimity.
Origins and History
According to some folklorists and historians the Christmas ham's origins in England lay in a:
"...tradition [that] was initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times....[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels."
In Scandinavia and England, Saint Stephen may have inherited some of Freyr's legacy. His feast day is December 26 and thus he came to play a part in the Yuletide celebrations which were previously associated with Freyr (Ingwi in England). In old Swedish art, Stephen is shown as tending to horses and bringing a boar's head to a Yuletide banquet. Both elements are extra-canonical and may be pagan survivals.
Southern United States
In the present day 21st century United States, several different options exist for Christmas dinner, often depending on the region in which one lives and the background of the guests at the meal. However, for Virginia and other parts of the South, there is one Christmas dish that is a particular favorite alongside turkey: country ham. In the 17th century, England sent massive amounts of settlers to the South to build up her new colonies in America. With them came a taste for ham at Christmas: back in England eating turkey would have been a rarity, as under the Stuarts it was still a dish for the well-to-do and not the farmer class, who would have eaten pork, and otherwise turkey would have been plentiful in the swamps and hardwood forests, thus not a luxury. As they had in England, early colonists and plantation owners fattened their hogs up on nuts and slaughtered their pigs in November, and carefully brined the hams until they were ready to eat a month later. To the present day, a traditional meal for Christmas is red eye gravy, fluffy biscuits, sweet potato, oysters, and ham glazed with pineapple or honey.
- Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe (1965) ISBN 0-14-013627-4
- Chambers, Edmund Kerchever. The Mediaeval Stage (Page 257) (1903)
- Spears, James E. Folklore, Vol. 85, No. 3. (Autumn, 1974), pp. 194-198. JSTOR
- Berger, Pamela (1985). The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-6723-7. pp. 105-112.
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