How Spiral Hams Beat Roast Turkeys As America’s Traditional Christmas Dish

Spiral hams have, for many years, been at the center of the Christmas and Easter feasts in American households. Though the United States typically follows European traditions when it comes to religious holidays, it somehow always misses that mark when it comes to food. The question is, what happened in American history that caused the center dish for the Christmas feast to change from fowl to swine?

The simple answer would be that the non-religious holiday known as Thanksgiving altered the traditional Christmas meal, leading to a preference for spiral hams. However, although some places like the United Kingdom typically eat roast turkey for Christmas, most other countries savor a roast duck or goose. Strangely, duck is among the least consumed meats in America. It is considered exotic, and categorized with meats like pheasant, goose, quail and even rabbit. Duck was therefore not a contender when the United States was subconsciously deciding on it’s staple holiday meal and instead went for a non-traditional approach altogether.

Image via Jupiterimages/Getty Images [Image via Jupiterimages/Getty Images]In the 18th and 19th centuries, the various meats were divided just as the country was; by class. Meats like chickens, turkeys and other fowl became highly associated with low class individuals and thus high society Americans adopted game as their Christmas poultry. Turkey ceased to be the holiday’s central meat and has been becoming less popular ever since. In 1995, one analysis of the turkey farming and production practices by Braid and Penman proved just how much of the dry bird was going to waste.

“Less than a third of the 35 million birds slaughtered each year are now eaten during Christmas. Most of the rest get turned into turkey products and portions for consumption throughout the year.”

As time went on, America’s unofficial class system dissipated with the introduction of a middle class and the meats of choice changed with the country. Although in the case the Christmas feast was based on non-traditional class concerns, the introduction of the spiral hams at Christmastime has all to do with holiday tradition. But, which holiday and religious tradition brought the ham to the center of the table?

The truth is, spiral hams as the main dish is directly descendant of early German Paganism and dates back to the sixth century. When Christianity was spread to Northern Europe, Germans simply incorporated the eating of spiral hams into their new religious practices. The holiday for which spiral hams became most consumed in Germany, was Easter and around the world many other countries have adopted the pagan tradition.

Image via Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Getty Images [Image via Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Getty Images]Spiral hams are the most common main dish at Christmastime, but the good ole roast turkey comes in second place. According to Time magazine, Americans consume an average of 318 million pounds of spiral ham during Christmas. Though it may appear that tradition is the root of it all, it is more reasonable to consider that Americans adopted spiral hams as the Christmas dish because of time and gluttony.

Yes, Americans are well-known for overeating and during the holidays this become quite extensive. In many American households, the Thanksgiving feast lasts up to Christmas day and is even sometimes frozen and used as side dishes for the Christmas feast. Therefore, having a turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving was not so popular and Americans looked for another meat to replace the traditional turkey.

Spiral hams are not traditional at all, but are merely a fallback meat for Americans who simply got tired of eating turkey. For many years in the country, spiral hams have been more consumed on Christmas than any other meat; regardless, American still manage to buy 22 million turkeys during the Christmas holiday.

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