Have you ever wondered why ham is a popular holiday food, especially for Christmas and Easter? After a long day of painting eggs and Easter egg hunting, the next step would be to sit down at a big bright table and dive into a juicy ham. After a brief tryptophan sojourn in November, tradition tells us to dive back in again at Christmas, where ham rears its delicious head often alongside a turkey and numerous other holiday dishes.
Since Christmas and Easter are separated by several months, it’s best to look at each one individually and understand why each ham tradition is different. While the two traditions don’t seem to be related to one another, it looks like the practicality of ham seemed to win out as traditions became more widely spread and celebrations became more bountiful.
A Ham for Christmas
While some lean towards turkey on Christmas, Thanksgiving leaves most of us ready to move on to any other meat after the countless leftovers of turkey sandwiches, stews, and the like. Ham has become the main course at a Christmas dinner in many households. Is it because we are tired of turkey, or is there more to it?
Many Christmas traditions stem from pagan rituals. Even the practice of trimming and decorating your Christmas tree stems from one of those rituals. Likewise, having a Christmas ham or Yule ham for dinner is derived from these ancient practices.
Before Christianity, a Germanic pagan ritual of killing a wild boar as a sacrifice to the Norse god, Freyr, was tradition. Freyr was associated with harvest and fertility. By sacrificing the wild boar, the pagans relished in relief that their future harvest would be plentiful.
As Christians adopted this ritual, the ham became a Christmas dinner centerpiece connected with St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. St Stephen was stoned to death in 36 AD, and Christians celebrate his life of devotion to Jesus Christ on the 26th of December each year. This day marks the second day of Christmastide, following the birth of Christ on December 25th. Christmastide lasts for 12 days and culminates in the Twelfth-night celebrations.
As is with many traditions, preferences change suddenly with supply and cost. For both Easter and Christmas, the aristocracy preferred the more expensive meats, which was turkey imported from the new world for the lavish elite of England. For those who could not afford the luxury, ham was more plentiful and far cheaper and was used more regularly in ceremonial meals.
Easter and Ham
Sometimes traditions are based on practical purposes. Having a ham on Easter Sunday is a tradition derived from the practicality that hogs were slaughtered in the fall and needed time to cure over the winter months. Come springtime, the meat was ready to eat, just in time to celebrate Easter.
History suggests that ham wasn’t always the first choice at Easter. The tradition changed to ham from lamb, derived from the Jewish Passover.
Passover tells the story of the Jewish people suffering through a series of plagues brought on by God’s wrath. As a strategy to avoid God’s anger, families would sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on their doorposts so that God would “pass over” their homes. Since that time, people have prepared a lamb for Passover to commemorate that event. As many Jewish converted to Christianity, they also adopted roast lamb into Easter celebrations.
Around the middle of the 20th century, ham overtook lamb as the main dish at Easter due to practicality. At this time, the demand for sheep declined as synthetic materials used in WWII uniforms began to become more mainstream. The decreased demand for wool resulted in fewer sheep and less availability of lamb. A cheaper alternative was the pig. Not only was it inexpensive, but people could buy it in larger sizes and feed larger numbers of people.
Preparing your Christmas and Easter Ham
With ham becoming a highly favored meat of choice for Christmas and Easter, the techniques in preparation have become more creative. To increase the sweetness of the ham, many people like to add a honey or brown sugar glaze. As the tropical pineapple became more popular, it was also used as a citrusy sweet glaze to add to the sweetness and decrease the dryness.
Some recipes still call for boiled ham which increases the juicy taste. Others bake it in the oven and add a sugary glaze. Either way, a mouth-watering ham on the table at Easter and Christmas has become a fortified tradition that excites the tastebuds and celebrates family.
York, Patricia S. “How Easter Ham Became One of Our Favorite Holiday Traditions.” 31 Jan 2021. Southern Living Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://www.southernliving.com/holidays-occasions/easter/why-do-we-eat-ham-on-easter>
Lovelle, Stephanie. “How Easter Ham Became a Delicious Tradition.” 04 April 2019. Martha Stewart Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021.
Kedmey, Dan. “Should You Eat Turkey or Ham This Christmas? An Analysis.” 24 Dec 2014. Time Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://time.com/3646915/christmas-turkey-ham-dinner/>