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Christmas and Dickens: The Yuletide History of Mince Pies

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When the air turns chilly and the scent of roasting chestnuts fills the streets, it's that time of year when mince pies make their grand entrance onto our festive tables.

These sweet and spicy pastry delights have been an integral part of Christmas celebrations for centuries. But did you know that mince pies and Charles Dickens (you might know him as the renowned author of A Christmas Carol) share a fascinating historical connection?

In this blog post, we'll embark on a delicious journey into the past, exploring the evolution of mince pies in the context of Christmas traditions and the influence of Charles Dickens.

an image of mince pies and a copy of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol sitting on a wooden table with a white textbox overlaid that reads "christmas and dickens: the yuletide history of mince pies"

The Origins of Mince Pies

Our tale begins in medieval England, where the precursor to the modern mince pie emerged. Initially, mince pies weren't the sweet confections we know today. They were savoury concoctions filled with a blend of finely chopped meats, fruits, and spices.

The first mention of a spiced 'pye' is found in The Forme of Cury, the oldest known cookery manuscript in the English language, dating from the fourteenth century. In the recipe, minced pork is mixed with honey, dried druit, wine, cheese, and spices to create a decadent savoury pie. The transition from meat to sweet didn't officially happen until the mid-18th century.

Because sugar, spices, and dried fruit were considered luxury items and only affordable by wealthy households, these pies symbolised opulence and were often reserved for grand feasts, particularly during the Christmas season.

Mince Pies: A Symbol of Celebration

But mince pies were not just indulgent culinary delights; they were imbued with religious significance.

Their ingredients, including exotic spices and dried fruits, were considered a symbol of the East, alluding to the Magi's gifts to the baby Jesus. In this way, mince pies became an essential part of Christmas celebrations, their rich filling a reminder of the season's abundance and the anticipation of the Epiphany.

There's a funny story about Samuel Pepys, who couldn't fathom Christmas without mince pies on the table. So much so that in 1661, he specially ordered and had the pies delivered to his home on Christmas because his wife was too ill to make them!

two mince pies, one with a bite taken out of it, and a copy of charles dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' sit on a wooden table

Charles Dickens and the Victorian Christmas Revival

The 19th century saw a resurgence of Christmas traditions in England, largely attributed to Charles Dickens. His beloved novella, A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a significant role in reviving and popularising many aspects of the holiday, including the consumption of mince pies.

In the novella, Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly character, undergoes a transformation after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. The story beautifully portrays the spirit of giving, compassion, and the joys of celebrating Christmas with loved ones. Throughout the book, Dickens weaves a tapestry of traditional Christmas customs, and among them, the feast of mince pies takes a prominent place.

Mince Pies in A Christmas Carol

In A Christmas Carol, the Cratchit family, despite their modest means, embraces the holiday season with joy and warmth. Their Christmas feast includes a bountiful supply of delicious food, and the description of the Cratchit household is enough to make anyone's mouth water:

"There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration... and now, without a word of warning from Mrs. Cratchit, they all burst out into a great laugh."

While the goose is the star of the feast, it is accompanied by a delectable array of desserts, including the celebrated mince pie:

"There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince pies, and plenty of beer."

Charles Dickens’ vivid descriptions of the Cratchit family's Christmas feast, complete with mince pies, helped to popularise the idea of a warm, generous, and festive holiday season. The novella's impact on the perception of Christmas, and its association with heartwarming traditions, remains significant to this day.

a stack of mince pies covered in powdered sugar sit on a wooden serving board on top of a table

The Victorian Influence on Mince Pies

During the Victorian era, mince pies saw a transformation from their earlier, meat-laden versions to the sweet, fruity pies we know today.

Hannah Glasse, in her Art of Cookery, directs readers to blend various dried fruits with apples, sugar, and suet and then layer it with mixed peel and red wine before baking. Unlike her predecessors, Glasse gives you the choice of adding finely minced meat to the filling.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, our modern interpretation of sweet mince pies finally started appearing regularly on the table and in literature and art, thanks to good old Mrs Isabella Beeton and her prolific books on household management.

This shift toward a sweeter filling was partly influenced by the changing tastes of the time, as well as the desire to make these treats more accessible to a wider audience.

Mince Pies and the Christmas Table Today

In modern times, mince pies are a staple of the Christmas table, enjoyed by people of all ages. The sweet, spiced fruit mincemeat enclosed in buttery pastry is a treat that signals the arrival of the holiday season (often much earlier than we’d like!)

While many choose to buy shop-bought, at Bookish Bakes, we always argue that homemade is simply better!

Making your own mince pies is such a rewarding and mindful experience. It gives you the chance to slow down during the busy holiday season and connect with the long history behind the food while you bake.

Our Mince Pies baking kit makes the process incredibly easy by providing you with everything you need to bake up these beautiful flaky pastry treats for your family and friends this holiday season.

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