A Feast for the First Christmas

At this time of year when cuisine blogs are awash with recipes for cookies and roast beast for the Christmas feast, I thought it would be a nice idea to create a notional menu for what the first Christmas feast might actually be like. In truth, that concept was brough to me by a writer from Bon Appetit magazine who wrote a great short piece based on my input. This post will look at the First-Christmas menu in more depth and discuss the reasons behind some of the choices.  It will also examine some of the issues that influence our ideas regarding the birth of Jesus and hopefully dispel some myths about the event.

To start, we have to get Jesus’s birthdate right, which was probably during the  Feast of Sukkot in the first few years BCE.  The feast is celebrated today according to the lunar calendar, but it usually falls in the early autumn.  In 2012, it was celebrated from 30 September to 7 October, so Jesus was a Libra not a Capricorn.  The temperature at this time of the year in Bethlehem was between 70 and 80 degrees Farenheit in the day and down into the 50s and 60s at night – so it was a comfortable time of year.  Bethlehem was a fertile area at a good altitude and with more rainfall than in much of the rest of the country, so food would be plentiful.

September-October is a time for harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives in Israel, so these would have figured heavily into the meal, regardless of the social class of the family.  Which brings me to another point, we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because Joseph brought two doves to the temple to sacrifice after the birth of Jesus instead of the more traditional  lamb.  By extension, his family would probably have been poor or working class, so there would be no royal feast for the Nazarene – at least not at home.  Also, keep in mind that Joseph and Mary were Jews and as such they probably would have observed Kosher dietary laws.  This would have been particularly true for Mary because she was with child.

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There is a lot of information in the bible about the individual foods that people ate, but not a lot of information about how they put ingredients together.  With no recipe “tablets” to work from,  I have prepared a notional menu for a feast that is based on these lists of ingredients, other historical knowledge, and a lot of creativity on my part. It is rooted in Sephardic tradition and in that respect breaks us out of the European cultural mindset that dominates most Christmas celebrations in the west.

Starters
Mixed-grain Bread
-  Olive oil with za’atar or other herbs for dipping
-  Plate of fresh herbs
Lentil salad with cracked or sprouted grains
Plates of Dates and Figs
Mixed local olives, salted, cured and brine marinated
Wine served throughout the meal

Main Courses
Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey
Roasted Pigeon or Doves with Herbs and Pomegranate Syrup
- Fish sauce garum to use as a table condiment
- Small bowl of salt
- Citron or Rose-petal Jam to eat with meat
Roasted Barley or Millet Pilaf

Sweet Endings
Honey-Sweetened Herbal Tea or Raisin Wine
Date and Pistachio sweets
Dried apricots and raisins
Charoset

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Mixed Grain Sourdough

Mixed Grain Sourdough

Examining some of the menu choices in more detail, I chose a mixed-grain bread as written in Ezekiel 4:5: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.”  Fitches are black onion seeds (nigella sativa, or kalonji from Indian cuisine). It wouldn’t be necessary to use all of these ingredients at once, but the idea of mixed grain and spices (onion seeds) is important.  Bread could have been flat or sourdough.  For a celebratory feast in an extended family home, I would choose sourdough as pictured here.

Za’atar is a local herb (Origanum syriacum) that is mixed with other ingredients – notably sumac, and sesame or pine nuts and a litany of other choices. This would have been mixed in olive oil and used to flavor bread as a dip.  Plates of herbs, like dill or fennel, might have also offered flavor to the bread and would have been served as fresh as possible.

Mixed Local Olives

Mixed Local Olives

Lentils or fava were very common source of food and might be eaten with sprouted or cracked wheat or barley for flavor and texture.  Cumin and coriander would be likely flavorings as would leek or onion.

Plates of dates and figs would be set out and would be fresh from the harvest.  Olives might be from the current year’s harvest if enough time had elapsed between picked and curing or fermenting and brining, otherwise they would have been from last year’s crop.

Grape or mixed fruit wine would be served throughout the meal.  It would have the resiny overtones of a modern retsina and would be sweetened with figs in the amphorae or herbs like rosemary.  It might be diluted with water, especially for the women.

Roasted Pigeon or Dove

Roasted Pigeon or Dove

Looking at the main courses, we find the option of Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey that is based on Luke 24:41-43, in which Jesus as a grown man eats fish with honey.  The fish would probably be a mullet, or sea cod (cheap and easy to catch as surface-water fish), but it could also be a grouper, sea bass or sea
bream.  Depending on the fish, thyme and/or dill with cilantro could be used as herbs. If it was a large fish it could be cooked on a spit or open fire.  Smaller fish or fish slices or filets would be cooked in an oven if the family had one or if a communal oven was available for use.

After fish and eggs, pigeon or dove was the most commonly eaten meat in ancient Israel.  Lamb was for the wealthier or for holidays and cow/oxen/bull was for the feast of the wealthy.  I can see pigeons spitted and covered with herbs like mint and cilantro or spices like cinnamon and then roasted and basted with pomegranate syrup as a delicious entrée.

Citron Jam

Citron Jam

Since Augustus was still on the throne in Rome, the use of garum in Roman Palestine would be likely.  The archaeological record tells us that Jews had special garum made by the Phonecians using fish allowed by Kosher dietary laws.  This could be a table condiment and mixed with herbs (such as oregano) or mixed with water, honey or wine.  This would, of course have enhanced the flavor of food as regular readers of this blog well know.

Since it is the Feast of Sukkot, citrons would be available.  A common way to eat them is to make jam out of them and use that to flavor meat. Another option is rose-petal jam.

The meat would be served with (or on) a pilaf of roasted barley or millet with herbs and spices.  Of the two grains, millet would be fresher at this time of year as it was just harvested in August.

Barley Pilaf

Barley Pilaf

For a sweet ending to the meal, people in the ancient Levant drank all manner of sweet herbal teas and could have enjoyed some after the main meal. Alternatively, a sweet, raisin-based wine could be served to clear the palate and end the meal.  Tea would be sweetened with local honey made by imported Anatolian bees that were fed on citrus blossoms and wild desert flowers.

Any manner of sweets made from pounded and rolled dates covered with pistachios could be served or simply a plate of dried apricots and raisins.  A sweet spread of nuts and dates like modern charoset could have been enjoyed with bread or all by themselves.

Dried Apricots and Dates

Dried Apricots and Dates

A few more cultural points in closing: Bethlehem would have been bustling with lots of out-of-towners (like Joseph and Mary) because of the census. Forget what you have learned about,” no room at the inn”, there weren’t many inns (or even any) and Mary would not have stayed in one as a woman. The only women in “inns” were working there. They would have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and would have been greeted and treated as extended family. Because other visitors also sought the family’s hospitality at the time of the census, there was probably no room for Mary and Joseph in the family’s “guest room”.

Mary probably gave birth in a cellar off of a central courtyard that was used to store supplies for the family and prized animals in the evening or in times of bad weather. A private and isolated area was chosen because of the physical mess of childbirth and because of Jewish cultural practices separating men and women at this time. She was probably attended by a midwife or older women from the family.

If Jesus’s birth was celebrated at all, it would have been in with wine and a bit of noisiness by the men of the family as was custom after the birth of a child. If there was a celebratory meal, there were no tables or chairs, a floor cloth or mat (or both) would be laid down and communal dishes with food placed upon it. Guests would sit or recline around the “table” and converse as they ate and drank. There were no individual plates; food went from communal bowls or platters – to hand – to mouth.

It’s also possible that Mary would not have taken part in a feast because women are considered “unclean” for one week after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. She might have had food brought to her by birth attendants or female family members, at least in the hours or days after the birth.

I hope this post brings some fresh ideas to your Christmas table, I’ve got some other ideas up my sleeve for the kinds of foods the three kings might have brought to an epiphanal feast to share as well. Remember, however you chose to celebrate, enjoy the time with famiy and friends and reflect on why you come together at this time.

(Words by Laura Kelley. The major points of this post first appeared in an article on Bon Appetit online entitled, What Would Jesus Eat. Photo of Sourdough Bread by Djauregui@Dreamstime; Photo of Mixed Olives by N. Larina@Dreamstime; Photo of Roasted Pigeon by Zhiqian-Li@Dreamstime; Photo of Citron Jam by Reika7@dreamstime; Photo of Barley Pilaf by Richard-Semik@Dreamstime; and Photo of Dried Apricots and Dates by M. Averyanova@Dreamstime.com)

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13 thoughts on “A Feast for the First Christmas

  1. This is a wonderful post and a delicious-looking menu. I just have one point of curiosity – why do you posit a September birth for Jesus? I’d always heard it was probably sometime around April or May (Clearly not December, if there were shepherds abiding in the fields…) , but I haven’t studied this for a while. I’d love a source for this, if you have one.

    Catherine

    • Hi Catherine:

      John 1:14 states that with the birth of Jesus, “the word became flesh and dwelt with us.” This is often interpreted to mean tabernacle. The feast of the tabernacle is Sukkot.

      As noted, the temperatures in Israel during Sukkot are quite nice, and there is no reason that shepherds would not be in the field. That prohibition would only be in the winter – when Christ’s birth is celebrated according to Roman custom.

      The sources for all of the cultural information in the post stem from the scholars involved in the Nazereth Village Reconstruction project (http://nazarethvillage.com/home.php).

      • Thank you so much for your reply and your link to the Nazareth Reconstruction Project. I find this sort of thing totally fascinating, so I’ve really enjoyed this post and the directions it has led me in.

  2. I find this an absolutely fantastic post, especially the possible menu at that time in the Holy Land! Hope you do not mind if I share with a few friends!

    Although I have slowly turned from Lutheranism towards Buddhism I have been interested in the ‘real’ Jesus story for decades and am still studying it. Now we all know Christmas was the ‘invention’ of Emperor Constantine in Rome in 325 ACE, but I have always taken Jesus’ birthdate to be March , 7 BCE – probably around the 21st, but coming from a Royal heritage, it would have been celebrated on 1 March! Six months difference :) ! One thing which has been proven for sure: there was no census on at any stage around that tme. Indeed, Mary did not stay in an inn, but these days many think the birth did not even take place in Bethlehem . . . . Just a few thoughts, quite sincerely wishing you a very happy Yule!!

    • Hi Eha:

      See the answer to Catherine above about the time of year for Jesus’s birth. There is also a lot of other evidence dealing with the date of John’s birth relative to that of Jesus that sets the time in the fall. As to the year, the range usually given is from 7 to about 4 BCE with the most likely years being 6 or 7 BCE.

      As to the existence of the census, again, my information is from those involved in the Nazereth reconstruction. I myself am not an expert in this field.

      • Hi – actually we are being quite unfair to you, as the food here to a large degree should be the ‘star’ – and it is most interesting – actually autumn or spring: there would not be such a big difference! I have studied this since 1984 and there is still quite furious debate going on at universities. I have also seen just about every film available in English on the subject and have shelves of books: again there is certainly argument! I do NOT go by the Bible, which historically is a very faulty document, but by the writings and findings of historians . . . I suppose over the years a certain picture I can accept has formulated in my mind – none of us know the exact truth: well, perhaps some of it is hidden in the Dead Sea Scrolls which no ordinary mortal is certainly allowed to see :D !

  3. I love your site very beautiful photos. but do people actually eat the “doves” on a stick with the heads on? lol i found it really gross and doves are a bird of peace is it fitting to skewer them like that with head!? i live in Egypt i know they sometimes serve rice stuffed pigeons with the head stuffed inside i just dont understand about people enjoying this LOL.

    • Hi Layla:

      Yes people really do eat doves and pigeons this way. When I was with my kids in Shanghai last year, my daughter was served a whole roasted bird with head on the plate and one could see the skewer marks on it. It was sitting up in a bed of vegetables arranged like a nest – so, yes people do eat doves this way.

      The photo in the post is of an eastern Asian preparation of the bird and obviously the steel pan is not true to the time of the first Christmas, but it was by far the best photo I could find of roasted pigeon that didn’t cost a fortune.

      Laura

  4. Laura,

    Another fabulously informative post. Yesterday I served a pomegranate, lentil and wheatberry salad…. very refreshing it was too and a change from my usual menu. When I see Yotam Ottolenghi in his UK television series I always think how beautiful the middle eastern dishes look and how healthy they seem so I should eat more of them and that’s something of a new year’s resolution.

    Have a happy Christmas Laura and all the best for the new year.

    Cid

    • Hi Cid:

      Thanks for the nice words! I love the salad – groats were common on Mesopotamian menus too!

      Happy holidays to you and yours as well!

      Laura

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