Gingerbread Houses and Mulled Wine

Gingerbread Houses and Mulled Wine: A Very Medicinal Tudor Christmas

By Kyra Kramer

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‘Tis the season to be jolly … and to stuff ourselves with certain foods that are synonymous with Christmas cheer. There is no real reason why we all don’t chow down on gingerbread, mince pies, and buttered brandy all the year round, but some nibbles are so associated with December’s festivities that it seems somehow wrong to eat them when it isn’t Christmas, or to not eat them during the holidays. A Christmas without ‘traditional’ Christmas foods is no Christmas at all.

In England, the foods that people consider to be a veritable requirement for the holidays fall mainly into the category of puddings or beverages. Sure, some foods – such as turkey with stuffing and Brussles sprouts – are thought of as key parts of Christmas lunch, but you can substitute ham for turkey and broccoli for sprouts and yet still be having a ‘proper’ holiday meal. Other foods, in contrast, are deemed so necessary to the Christmas spirit that trying to make the yuletide gay without them is nearly a sacrilege. Many people feel that Christmas has been incompletely celebrated if there have been no mince pies with brandy butter, fruitcakes, sugar cookies decorated with icing, gingerbread men and their gingerbread houses, and various forms of plum puddings consumed between December 1st and the New Year. Celebrations require foamy glasses of eggnog, or mugs of hot buttered rum, or cups with steaming spiced cider, or goblets of mulled wine to be appropriately seasonal. And there is almost always the Christmas cake.

There is such a common spice palette among these most Christmas-y of Christmas desserts and drinks that Christmas even has a distinctive smell. The aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves are so associated with Christmas that they are the primary aromatics used in scented candles marketed for the holidays. When you light a votive that promises to smell like Christmas, it will almost certainly smell of sweetness and mincemeat flavorings.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we use those particular spices? Or eat those particular foods?

Yes, those spices taste good in mulled wine or baked into a fruitcake, but there are other spices that would taste equally nice. It’s not as if the Magi brought the gifts of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves to the Nativity. The Star of Bethlehem was not redolent of nutmeg. Why, then, are these spices so linked to the smell – to the taste – of Christmas? It’s not like gingerbread men are less tasty if eaten at Easter. So why Christmas?

You can thank ancient physicians for our cinnamon-laced holiday treats.

For millennia, medical practitioners devoutly embraced humoral theory. Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, and up until the invention of the steam engine, humoral theory was considered an incontrovertible truth. The human body – the whole universe — was presumed to be made up of four elements, and every element had its own attributes. Earth was cold and dry, air was warm and wet, water was cold and wet, and fire was hot and dry. These four elements each made a different kind of fluid, or humor, in the human body. Black bile was the humor of earth, and was accordingly cold and dry as well. Red blood was warm and wet and from the element of air, while cold, wet water made phlegm, and fire made hot, dry yellow bile. A person’s health depended on the mixture of humors inside of them, which doctors referred to as a patient’s “complexion”, since the coloration of the skin was believed to be an invaluable diagnostic tool. A physician’s goal was to help people achieve eukrasia, or the perfect balance of humors for perfect health. This was a delicate balancing act requiring highly-skilled practitioners, with the learned seeking keep the ever-changing humors in the correct ratios or to coax them back into eukrasia.

One of the ways physicians tried to keep their patients’ internal systems in the perfect equilibrium was through the diet. Everything a person ate or drank contained aspects the four elements, and would generate the corresponding humors in the body. Ergo, what a person consumed would influence their humors, for good or ill. If a person was feverish, then clearly their concentration of yellow bile was too high, and ingesting something that generated phlegm would cool the patient down, balance out the yellow bile, bring their body back into harmony, and their fever would break.

Preventative medicine, in the form of food, was also important in humoral theory. Doctors recommended that people change their diets in order to adjust their bodies to the seasonal effects of the weather, and therefore keeping their humors from slipping out of true on hot days or cold nights. In the summer people were told to consume cooling foods, like lettuce, cucumbers, leeks, beans, spinach, barley, and fish, preferably prepared by boiling and served with cooling flavorings, such as dill, vinegar, or cream-based sauces. This would prevent the development of too much yellow bile even if you had to be out in the noonday heat. At the onset of winter people were advised to eat foods that would heat them up. Since more people, especially the very old and very young, died in the winter, eating warming foods was imperative. A well-spiced dish could save your life.

Long before there was a Christmas, people celebrated midwinter festivals with goodies that would heat their blood and keep them (literally) in good humor. Drying fruits in the sun changed their naturally chilly humor and further heated already warm produce; the sun was believed to suck out the cold, wet aspect of fruit and leave the dry heat of a summer’s day in its place. As a result, dried fruit became a way to get sunshine in winter and bask in its bright rays internally. Warming spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, were also added to foods – both sweet and savory — to heat them up. Milk was cold, but when transformed into butter it became hot and warmed the liver in particular, where blood was thought to be made, so eating food rich in butter warmed the blood.

Sugar was considered both inherently medicinal and warming, so eating puddings in the winter was just what the doctor ordered. Buttery shortbread and sugar cookies, cakes, and candies warmed the body as well as delighting the taste buds. A big slice of fruitcake, filled with sun-drenched bits of dried fruit, sugar, and heat-making spices like cinnamon and cloves, would keep you warm through the iciest night. Minced pies, loaded with summery dried fruit and sugar and sealed in a buttery pastry casing, would fight off the deepest chill. Want whipped cream on top? Then best to add brandy to it so that the cold cream is moderated by the heat of that alcoholic spirit. Gingerbread, with molasses and sugar, as well as the heating ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, was a treat guaranteed to keep anyone from becoming phlegmatic.

Red wine and cider were both warm, but they could be made even warmer if they were heated with added cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon before a hot poker was thrust into the cup to raise the liquid’s temperature. Almost any drink could be warmed enough for winter consumption if enough sugar and spices were added to it. That’s why eggnog, the descendant of the medieval posset drink, contains copious amounts of warming sugar, cloves, and nutmeg as well as eggs and milk.

One of the few vegetable must-haves on many Christmas menus is the Brussel sprout.  In the 15th century Brussels sprouts began to be cultivated throughout Northern Europe, and were conceptualized as “little cabbages”. Cabbage was considered to be a very drying food, perfect to combat the damp humor of winter weather. Roasting these little cabbages made them even warmer and drier from a humoral standpoint as well. Modern Christmas lunches still sport sprouts as a method of defeating the cold, wet, winter blues, whether they know it or not.

The association between warming spices and foods during cold weather became so ingrained that these edibles became the “correct” things to consume at midwinter celebrations of feasts, and thus at Christmastime, and now they are the traditional holiday nibbles. Ancient beliefs about humours are why things like gingerbread and mulled wine — the things that fight off colder melancholic humors — are so linked to the “warmth” and “cheer” of Christmas that it is hard to think of a joyous noel without them. Once upon a time, they were eaten at Christmas because they were needed; now they are eaten because they are needed to make Christmas.

Christmas foods are almost all based on ancient humoral beliefs, even when they have come from relatively modern times. When rum came to England in the 17th century people it was diagnosed as a hot drink, since it was an alcoholic spirit made from sugar cane. Heating it over the fire and adding sugar, cinnamon, and a large dollop of butter was simply coals to Newcastle to make it the perfect warming drink during the shortest days of the year. Chocolate, though, was a cold food because it is bitter and astringent in its natural state. To enjoy it as a celebratory treat it had to be rendered into a concoction made with liberal amounts of fat and sugar to heat it.

Dickens left Christmases inexorably entwined with the idea of a roast goose and figgy pudding, but the reason the Victorians ate those foods was still based on humoral ideology, even though germ theory had started to remake medical practice by then. A roasted goose was a goose rendered properly warm, and ladling the goose grease over boiled potatoes heated the dangerously cold tubers enough to make them safe to eat. As for the figgy pudding – the two hottest dried fruits in humoral theory were raisins and figs, and were therefore the ideal ingredients to add to a sweet, steamed pudding to stave off Jack Frost when he tried to nip at your nose. Top the figgy pudding with brandy butter and you could walk naked through a blizzard without harming your humoral balance!

This holiday season, while you are eating your body weight in puddings and have drunk enough eggnog to float a small ship, you can be comforted in the fact you are doing the historically correct thing for your health. Galen, trumpeted as the Father of Western Medicine, would want you to have another mince pie and cup of mulled cider. Go on. It’s traditional.


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  1. Michael Griffin says:

    Sounds interesting

  2. Alicia Mae says:

    How absolutely fascinating!

  3. Catherine Chetwood says:

    This sounds like an interesting read! So fascinating to hear about food customs and traditions from other periods of time, especially the Tudor period.

  4. Nicola Dunn says:

    Looks good!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you, and
    Merry Christmas

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