The Real Reason People Eat Ham On Christmas

When you picture your holiday feast, you probably think of potatoes and gravy, bread rolls and roasted vegetables, and many other hearty dishes. And if you live in the Western world, your imagination probably conjures up images of roasted ham. The Christmas ham is a quintessential holiday dinner item, featured as the main course for a lot of hungry celebrants. According to Time, in America alone, shoppers purchase over 318 pounds of ham during the holidays, but why is ham so popular for Christmas supper?

The tradition of eating ham during winter goes back centuries before Christmas — and even Christianity itself. (Although back then, nobody was swinging a bag of the stuff from The Honey Baked Ham Company on the table.) Wintertime ham originally came from wild boars and served as part of the Yuletide traditions established by Germanic Pagans. These rituals were created to celebrate the Winter Solstice and pay tribute to one of their many gods. 

From Norse origins to the present

The word Yule comes from Old English, and we've come to use it to apply to Christmastime in general. However, it refers to a midwinter festival celebrated by Norse pagans. Freyr, the god of fertility and abundant harvests, was the central figure of the holiday. To pay tribute, merrymakers performed a ritual sacrifice of a wild boar and feasted on it. As Christianity spread to Northern Europe, the sacrifice to a Norse god ended, but the porky main course stayed and remained a part of winter solstice events well into medieval times. In fact, the song "The Boar's Head Carol" was written some unspecified time before 1500 (via Folklore). 

Ham's transition from pagan to Christian traditions likely came in 350 AD when Pope Julius I officially designated December 25 as the day to celebrate Jesus Christ's birth. This was less of a declaration of Christ's actual birth date than an attempt to fold the holiday into the long-standing traditions around wintertime, which included eating pork. The date of the meal made the jump from the solstice to Christmas. However, over time, there's been a bit less wild boar sacrifice, with more folks opting for a honey-glazed ham. 

Pork as religious differentiation

It may not be lost on you that eating pork to celebrate a man who was ethnically and religiously Jewish, a group that famously abstains from pork products, is a bit, well, strange. However, it's not completely by coincidence that we eat pork at Christmas. In Spain, Christians ate meat to differentiate themselves from the significant Muslim population and continue to enjoy it as part of their traditional Christmas supper. Perhaps some Christians took up the ancient tradition of Yuletide hog feasts to separate themselves and their diet from non-Christian Abrahamic religions, though there's little evidence that this was a deliberate decision. 

With that said, some Christian sects, such as Seventh-day Adventists, also exclude pork from their diet, so ham certainly won't appear on every Christmas dinner table. And Christmas ham isn't all that ubiquitous in the Western world. Christmas dinner looks different all over the continent. In the U.K., turkey is the main protein for Christmas dinner, which Americans tend to enjoy at Thanksgiving. In Italy, pasta and fish have a significant role in the meal, while Swedes opt for julbords, sprawling trays of cheese, cured fish, and meats.