Christmas Dinner Was Far Different In 1906

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The holiday dinner of a century ago on a typical Pennsylvania farmstead would have taken up to two weeks to prepare. It featured delicacies that have vanished from the modern Thanksgiving or Christmas table and others that would surprise people today.

So says George Gross, director of Delaware Valley College's Roth Living Farm Museum in North Wales, Pa. The museum depicts farm life as it was from 1895 to 1905.

"Venison, wild turkey or rabbit would be served for Thanksgiving," Gross says. "At Christmas, meats were often pulled from the smoker because hunting for fresh game was more difficult in the snow and cold. Or one of the youngest children might be asked to kill a goose or one of the farm's chickens that had stopped laying eggs."

There was no ham on the menu for Christmas dinner 1906, nor pork, either, Gross says.

"Pork and ham were daily breakfast staples and were not considered fancy," he notes.

The farm wife and her daughters -- as well as sons not old enough for outside labor -- prepared the meats for cooking. They would clean and dress the deer or rabbit, and boil and de-feather the chicken or goose. The meats were roasted on an open hearth or in the oven of a wood stove.

Cooking on the stovetop were vegetables brought up from the root cellar such as turnips, parsnips, squash and potatoes, which were served mashed with fresh butter and cream from the family cows.

Deep-dish onion and egg pie was a favorite in those days, and it took about five hours to collect the eggs and milk, prepare the dish and cook in a wood oven. A loaf or two of bread would have been freshly baked earlier in the day.

No ooey-gooey "death by chocolate" for dessert. The farm family of 1906 would enjoy a tart made from canned fruit prepared earlier and pie crust rolled and baked that day.

While it could take a day or two to gut, clean, skin and dress a deer, that was not the most time-consuming part of meal preparation. It took up to two weeks to make the favorite family holiday beverage -- root beer.

"Folks believed that root beer was an excellent drink for them, thinking the roots killed bacteria in the drinking water, thus making it safer to drink than water," says Gross. "They hadn't realized that it was the boiling process that was doing the trick, and had they wanted to drink safer water, they only needed to boil it."

It took a full day and sometimes longer to clean, boil and store the assorted roots used for the beverage. Then it took two weeks for fermenting.

Holidays in 1906 were not days off as we know them today. On Thanksgiving or Christmas, the farmer and his boys might only tend to the animals, but that still meant hours of backbreaking labor beginning well before dawn.

Farmers typically ate large breakfasts and midday meals. Supper was a small meal with scraps of leftovers. That's why the holiday meal of 1906 would have been served at midday, or certainly no later than mid-afternoon.

Like today, the holiday table of 1906 would have featured the best dinnerware, flatware and glassware that the hostess had to offer. Candles were lighted for illumination, not for atmosphere.

One more thing

The lady of the house would have planned the quantities for her 1906 meal perfectly, because there was no refrigeration for leftovers. And the next morning she would have gotten up and started all over again.

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