On Christmas morning some 60 years ago it was a great treat to find an orange in our stockings. By the time my brothers and I got around, a goose was already in the oven and its fatty odour was permeating the house. For years it was always roast goose for Christmas dinner; this was the traditional meal until turkeys became popular. If you’ve ever helped render the fat of a roasting goose you’ll understand why the cook of the household gladly switched over to turkey.
Roasting a goose for Christmas dinner is undoubtedly a tradition brought here from Great Britain. My mother grew up in London within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church (the “Bow Bells” which made her a Cockney) and she remembers that they always had roast goose for Christmas dinner at home. She wasn’t surprised to discover that roast goose was the favourite Christmas fare here and for decades this was what she always prepared.
When my mother arrived in Canada shortly after the conclusion of World War 1, the Christmas goose was roasted in the oven of a stove fired by wood and coal. Accounts of Christmas celebrated here in earlier times mention that the traditional goose was usually cooked in the hearth of the home’s sole source of heat, the fireplace.
While roast goose was the traditional Christmas dinner for generations, people often substituted turkeys, small pigs and other fowl. In 1815, when a plague of mice and extremely cold weather in Nova Scotia decimated crops and livestock, Christmas dinner in some areas was “the provender of potatoes and turnips still left in the cellar and wild game.” Family record from earlier times occasionally mention that wild game – waterfowl, grouse and rabbits – often was the main course on Christmas day when times were hard.
In his history of Kings County, Arthur W. H. Eaton mentions the preparation of Christmas dinner some 100 or more years ago. Eaton quotes an earlier writer, Dr. John Burgess Calkin, who left a detailed description on how the traditional Christmas goose was once cooked. For the benefit of those not having access to Eaton’s history, here is how the Christmas goose was prepared in the days before stoves made their appearance and fireplaces were, as Calkin wrote, “the most sacred spot in all the house.”
“Early on Christmas morning the children of the household were astir. Breakfast was soon over and preparations for cooking the dinner were begun. A long string was twisted from the coarser fibres of home-grown flax. One end of this string was fastened to a large nail in the beam directly over the hearth. To the other end, which came down directly to the fire, was attached a turkey, a goose, or perchance a young pig.
“The cooking process was thus carried on by the heat that was radiated from the open fire. But that the cooking might go forward evenly, the roast must be kept ever on the whirl to bring all sides in turn before the fire.
“The impetus for this circular movement was given by hand, so that constant attention was needed. But to keep the string from being untwisted and falling to pieces, with constant disaster to the roast, the whirling had to be now in one direction, then in another.”
Eaton also mentions the “Christmas back-log.” This extra large log – “of larger size than the back-log of other days” – was rolled into the back of the fireplace on Christmas eve and covered with smaller sticks, apparently banking the fire so it would be still be ablaze next morning and an early start could be made in roasting the Christmas dinner.