Whether you call it mince meat, minced meat or Christmas pie, this traditional English pastry dates back to the Crusades. What began as a way to preserve meat by using spices, later became a traditional Christmas pie with less meat and more fruits and spices.
Beloved by kings and banned by governments, the pie continues to live on as a tasty Christmas dessert.
Origin of Mince Meat Pie: From the Middle East to the Christmas Table
Mince meat pies, or at least the English version, go back to the Crusades when returning nobles and soldiers introduced new Middle Eastern spices and cooking methods that combined fruit with meat. Although the mixture may have been Middle Eastern in origin, the English added a Christian touch by associating the dish with Christmas.
To make the pie more Christian, the Crusaders turned it into a pie to honor the Savior’s birth. Rather than have a traditional round pie shape, the pie was made in an oblong casing, sometimes called a coffin or cradle shape. In her article, “Mincemeat Pie – History of Mincemeat Pie,” Linda Stradley states that a place was made “for the Christ Child to be placed on top.” When it was time to eat, the children removed the baby and then the whole family ate the “manger” – that is, the pie – to celebrate Christmas.
Traditional Recipe Ingredients for Mince Meat Pie: Christian Symbolism
Like plum puddings associated with Christmas, the original recipe for mince meat pie was filled with religious symbolism. The pie was supposed to have 13 ingredients, symbolizing Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles. The ingredients had to be stirred from east to west to show the route of the Three Wise Men or Magi. In addition, the pie had to contain three Middle Eastern spices – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – to represent the three gifts the Magi gave to the Christ child.
Other traditional ingredients included meat, often minced mutton. However, other meats such as ox tongue, chicken liver, goose, beef or other chopped meat could also be used. Although recipes varied, the meat might be combined with pepper, salt, saffron, suet or marrow, vinegar, prunes, raisins, currents, dates, and orange peel as well as the traditional spices of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
By the 17th century, as fruits and spices become cheaper and more plentiful, the pies turned from savory to sweet, with little or no meat included. The shape of the pie also changed, going from oblong to round. Although some people still make full-size pies today, you’re just as likely to find small, individual sized ones.
For modern-day recipes, check out Joy of Baking’s Mince Pie Recipes or Anna Olson’s Classic Mincemeat Pie.
Beloved of Kings and Banned by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament
While both King Henry V and King Henry VIII of England liked mince meat pie, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell banned all foods cooked for Christmas celebrations. According to them, Christmas was a pagan holiday that promoted gluttony and drunkenness rather than sober worship. Pies in particular were considered guilty, forbidden pleasures.
When Cromwell abolished the celebration of Christmas in 1657, he also banned mince meat pies, a ban that was echoed in North America in many Puritan towns in New England. The celebration and the pie were only restored in 1660 when King Charles II became King of England.
Since then, mince meat pies have lost much of their religious symbolism, and recipes may have more or fewer than 13 ingredients, but they still remain a tasty part of the Christmas celebration. And if you want to have good fortune and happiness in the coming year, eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
Mince Meat Pie Superstitions for Good and Bad Luck
Like many foods associated with holidays, mince meat pies have come to be surrounded by superstition. So if you want good luck and avoid bad luck, heed these superstitions.
- Refusing a piece of mince meat pie at Christmas dinner means you will have bad luck for the coming day. Some sources, on the other hand, say you’ll have bad luck for a whole year. So eat up.
- Speaking up eating up, if you want good luck then eat mince piece every day between Christmas and Twelfth Night and you will have 12 months of good luck. It’s even better if you can eat the pies at a different house each day.