There's turkey and pud, but why?

The Christmas meal. A ritual in piggery that makes mothers scream and sends cardiologists into a frenzy. As turkeys tremble and stomachs recoil from the next onslaught of Aunt Aggie's terminal Christmas pudding, don't you ever ask yourself, "Why?"

To which, the festive riposte might be, "Why not?" As with most Christmas rituals, the meal has very little to do with events in the Middle East about 2,000 years ago. Take the turkey. The life form that most dreads Christmas celebrations did not gobble its way on to English territory from its American home until around 1542. By the 1590s, Elizabethans were falling over their ruffs to get it on to feast tables, but it was only around 1900 that it became standard Christmas lunch. In medieval times, the peacock was preferred. Often it would form the centrepiece of a medieval manor table, its gilded beak glinting more richly than a serf's existence. Competitors vying for a place in the lord of the manor's stomach included the boar and the swan.

The advent of cattle-rearing led to beef as the favoured option for Tudor Christmases. In those heady, pre-BSE days, beef had no problem staying at the top of Christmas menus until the goose and turkey between them took the Yuletide bull by the horns and trounced it. Now the turkey stays in the lead, though the goose is catching up again, with anticipated sales this year of 400,000.

The Christmas pudding has also had to fight for its place. Originally a soup thickened with breadcrumbs and egg, it was revolutionised by the addition of Tudor prunes, and speedily transformed itself into plum or Christmas porridge. It was only by 1836 that it held pride of place at the Christmas table. So remember that when you're reaching for your Alka- Seltzer.