As we enter the festive season with the rotting carcass of Brexit stinking up the air, as the judges of the supreme court untangle its lights and string them up there is a single sweet note reaching our noses.
Twitter has been abuzz with the news that our separation from the continent may bring back to our shores the Christmas Pie, so long known to us in only the form deemed acceptable by the unelected, unappreciated, unwanted and unenlightened Eurocrats, the hated “mince pie”. Such has been Europe’s total domination of British culture that it’s now rare to find a person who came of age after the disastrous referendum of ’74 who has even heard the “mince pie” being called its true and noble name.
The earliest record of Christmas Pies comes from 3rd century Gnostic sects. The Gnostics were widely regarded as heretical because of their rejection of a formal church structure, in favour of individuals working to be closer to god and it was their effort to understand the mysteries of the nativity that led to the pie. They came to believe that by eating the animals that had been in the manger with Jesus they could get a flavour of the first Christmas miracle, figuratively speaking. A recipe from circa 450AD – the only known pie recipe older than Mary Berry – describes a pie containing beef, pork, lamb, shepherd, mutton and donkey, mixed with grains, carrots, and beets and is described as “a goodful and hearty way with which to celebrate the Christ-child’s mass.”.
For the next 1,200 years the recipe for Christmas pies would slowly evolve, while their name stayed the same, but this was struck a terrible blow when parliamentarian, puritan and noted Europhile, Oliver Cromwell, outlawed the celebrating of Christmas. England, still reeling from the civil war, found itself thrown into recession as tinsel-weavers, tree-baggers, toy-makers, sprout-harvesters and writers of humorous books, suitable for reading on the privy, all found themselves unemployed. To meet the population’s reduced living standards butchers began mincing whatever meat they could get their hands on – horses, badgers, left-over cavaliers, cats, etc. – and, these became the first mince pies. This also associated them with poverty, enforced mirthlessness, Eurocratic meddling and occasional ‘Mr Whiskers’ tags.
Britain slowly crawled out of puritanism, but was slower to reclaim the Christmas pie. The reintroduction of the term was most widespread in the part of the country you’re nor from and don’t visit often, as those living there will attest.
In the mid 18th century it was noticed that, other than in the first folios, all Shakespearean mentions of “Christmas Pie” had been removed. Presumably this happened during Cromwell’s reign, but it was the general feeling of parliament that people were used to the modified versions, so they should be treated as the definitive plays henceforth. Authors came to regard this as an in-joke, and frequently included Christmas Pies in scenes they intended to edit or delete at a later date. A charming example is taken from Charles Dickens’ handwritten draft of ‘A Christmas carol’ and adds some colour to a familiar scene near the end of the story…
“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven ‘t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” returned the boy
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey; the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”
“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it!”
“Chuck me down some money then!” yelled back the boy, his hands forming a bowl to catch the pennies from heaven.
“I haven’t any cash on me,” replied Scrooge, realising he was still in his night-shirt, “Tell the butcher to put it on my account.”
“Tell the butcher to give me the biggest turkey in the shop, on the account of the meanest man in town? He’ll think it a lark, sir, and tan my hide,” explained the boy.
“Very well,” muttered Scrooge, “Tell him to put it to one side and I’ll be round once I’ve been to the cashpoint.”
“Yes, sir, and a merry Christmas to you, sir.”
“Oh, good point, tell him to put two dozen Christmas pies aside as well!” called Scrooge, as he started hunt for his trousers.
So it was that, but the time of the 1974 referendum on EU membership, the Christmas pie was seen both as something forbidden or taboo, and also a cry back to better times, before austerity, puritanism and EU meddling. Obviously this did not fit with Britain’s new place in federalised Europe and the government of the day quietly agreed to dampen down talk of “Christmas pies” in favour, if not in flavour, of “Mince pies”.
Here we stand then, on the historic day when MPs have backed the government’s timetable to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty by March next year. Perhaps this yuletide will be the last where we won’t be cheerfully calling out, “Pass me a Christmas pie, please!”