Raisins, figs, currants, citron, orange and lemon peel, mince meat and all those things which go to make the Christmas table attractive and beautiful. Do not fool your money away on useless toys, but come and supply yourselves with something worth 100 cents on the dollar. Come and see what we have to offer you.
Yours very truly, GEO T CARSKADON
Ad from KEYSER [WV] TRIBUNE
December 5, 1913
Mince meat, or mince, pies have had a traditional place on the Christmas table throughout Appalachia for two reasons: 1) lack of refrigeration; 2) British ancestors.
This is a time of year when hunters, from the earliest settlers on, have entered the forest seeking wild game to supplement the winter larder. The custom of mincemeat pies during the holidays is partially a holdover from putting up wild game in the days before freezers. The mincemeat mixture was a method of preservation, as the combination of the acids from the fruits and the heat from baking inhibited the growth of bacteria in the meat.
As for the British influence, today’s Christmas mince pie first started to evolve in the 11th Century, when the Crusaders were returning from the Holy Land.
They brought home a variety of oriental spices, which over time led to the addition of three spices to the meat pie (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. In honor of the birth of the Savior, the mince pie was originally made in oblong casings (coffin or cradle shaped), with a place for the Christ Child to be placed on top. These pies were not very large. The baby was removed by the children and the manger (pie) was eaten in celebration.
The pie’s name comes from the Latin minuere, “to diminish,” and of course mincemeat referred originally to a meat that had been minced up, a meaning it has had since the sixteenth century. Already by that era minced or shred pies, as they were also known, had become a Christmas specialty.
Mincemeat was banned in the 17th century during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime, as “sinfully rich” and “unfit for God fearing people.” The superstitions associated with the dessert had a smell of paganism to them (as do many Northern European holiday customs which can be traced back to winter solstice festivals).
If, for example, you ate one mincemeat pie at a different house on each of the twelve days of Christmas, you would experience good luck for each of the 12 months of the coming year.
Over the years, the pies grew smaller, and the shape of the pie was gradually changed from oblong to round. By the nineteenth century the meat content had been reduced to the point that the pies were simply filled with a mixture of suet (the hard layer of fatty tissue surrounding the kidneys of cattle), spices and dried fruit, previously steeped in brandy. This filling was put into little pastry cases that were covered with pastry lids and then baked in an oven.
British tradition holds that Father Christmas is a fan of the pie. Therefore, British children will often leave a slice or two near the fireplace or chimney, along with milk or brandy, to thank him for gifts in their stockings.
We have the Scots to blame for fruitcake, that other famous holiday desert one either loves or hates, but that’s a story for another day.
sources: “The Roots of Appalachian Christmas Traditions,” by Lois Carol Wheatley, Appalachian Voice, Nov 2007