The Best Time Of Day To Have Christmas Dinner

While Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday, many elements of our national Christmas festivities follow the lead of British and European cultures. Sure, we’ve given the world aural sledgehammers like “Rudolph” and “Frosty,” but across the pond, they’ve established traditions like bringing live trees inside the house, opening presents on Christmas Eve and scheduling the celebratory feast for mid-day.

There are centuries of British tradition behind the midday timing, many of which can be traced back to class consciousness, historic precedent and just plain old common sense. Barry Tonkinson, vice president of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education, was born and raised in England. “I can say for certain that our national tradition of Christmas dinner is cherished and almost uniformly adhered to by a large portion of the population,” he said. “The day is centered on food and family — and it starts early in the day.”

Christmas dinner is a daytime thing in Great Britain.

Food historian Pen Vogler, the author ofStuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain,” explained that the timing of the meal has historic origins: “When we sit down to Christmas dinner in early or mid-afternoon, we’re returning to the mealtimes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century,” she said.

“Until the disruption of a working day away from the home, this was the time that most people, from cottage workers to the leisure classes, had a break for dinner. Our ‘dinner time’ was chased later and later into the day by a combination of social pressures and changing working patterns, as more people worked in factories and offices. The elite moved their dinner times later and later, followed by the aspirational classes.

“In this way, dinner moved to an early or later evening and a new meal, called ‘lunch,’ emerged in the early nineteenth century. In Britain, there is still a regional and class divide between people who call their middle-of-the-day meal ‘lunch,’ which tends to be Southerners and/or posh folks, and those who call it ‘dinner,’ which is a more Northern, working-class term.”

“I can say for certain that our national tradition of Christmas dinner is cherished and almost uniformly adhered to by a large portion of the population. The day is centered on food and family — and it starts early in the day.”

– Barry Tonkinson

But on Dec. 25, Vogler noted, unity returns to the land, at least for those who celebrate the Christian holiday. “It’s lovely that the last two or three hundred years of industrialization and class division seem to melt away for Christmas dinner,” she said. “We mostly all call it ‘dinner,’ too, though there are some die-hard ‘Christmas lunchers,’ and we celebrate all around the nation at around the same time.” In fact, many families in Great Britain still time meals around the King’s Christmas Speech, which is televised at precisely 3 p.m.

This is how the royals eat, too.

Chef Darren McGrady was personal chef to Queen Elizabeth II; Diana, Princess of Wales and princes William and Harry for 15 years. For years, he was part of the culinary work that went into making a holiday meal for the royal family’s celebrations at Windsor Castle. It was a massive undertaking that started with preparation of the Christmas puddings in March or April, and then months later they’d be doused with brandy, lit and paraded into the royal dining room, accompanied by a round of applause. “That moment was always the real heart of Christmas to me,” he said.

He also said that the royal family follows another long-standing tradition by enjoying the main meal early in the day, then having a cold buffet in the evening. “Granted, they have much more expensive cold cuts than most would eat, including things like foie gras en croute,” he noted.

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Not only will your body be happier, but you’ll feel better if you eat the feast while the sun’s still out.

Here’s what a gastro doctor says.

It’s great to follow tradition, but it’s also smart to consider the science behind the dinner — or, at least, our digestion of it. Dr. Aja Mccutchen, a gastroenterologist, had this to say about the wisdom of a daytime meal: “The emerging field of chrono-nutrition allows us to understand the relationships of meal timing, circadian rhythm and our metabolic health. Eating earlier allows us to recover from the larger than normal consumption, allowing us more efficient digestion and metabolization.”

Not only will your body be happier, but you’ll feel better if you eat the feast while the sun’s still out. “Earlier meals allow us to have energy after meals rather than feel sluggish,” she said. “It has also been found that eating late at night may suppress lipase, leading to decreased ability to burn fat. So eating earlier provides better metabolic control, and may prevent holiday bloat, weight gain and the vicious cycle of wanting more. That can happen because ghrelin levels, which increase appetite, spike when you’re eating late.”

The Brits love this tradition.

For people who grew up in Great Britain, this is all just business as usual. Iona Mitchell, a teacher who lives in central London, pointed out the beauty of a long, slow enjoyment of food, instead of a gobble-it-down affair: “It is a big meal, but it’s eaten at a very leisurely pace,” she said. “It lasts all day really, and if you take breaks — go for a walk or play games — it’s just a really nice way to spend time together. I think eating this quantity of food in one go would be uncomfortable, so pacing the day is crucial. I’m a big fan of the mid-afternoon walk because if it’s nice and crisp outside, there’s nothing better than getting some exercise and then returning to the warmth just as it’s getting dark. Then I feel reasonably virtuous and ready for pudding and cheese.”

Tonkinson agreed: “Having a large meal early sets the tone for the later hours, and getting the lunch done early allows everyone to enjoy the remainder of the day with no stress in the kitchen.”

Finally, Vogler noted that eating first and lounging later gives the day a certain “only on Christmas” quality. “It feels like a special and more luxurious, expansive use of a day when we don’t have to work. We can just pay attention to good food, our families and loved ones.”

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