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What cookbooks and magazines can tell us about Christmas in Australia

This is an article that I wrote for the old website in 2018, that proved very popular. I am reposting it here and will update it in 2022. Subscribe to our newsletter if you would like to see the update (details below).

It’s a really good example of the power of visual analysis.

The Christmas imagery muddle

I have been looking at cookbooks and magazines which feature Christmas recipes. All were published in 2018. I have come to the conclusion that Christmas as a cultural (rather than religious) festival has become very muddled. In research terms, I could say that the ‘narrative is incoherent’, but I think I will stick with muddled.

How can cookbooks and magazines tell us anything about Christmas?

To understand how culture influences people, we can divide it into two inter-related categories: material and non-material culture.

Material culture is made up of tangible things that other people have created that became part of the world we live in. They are the things that we buy like clothing and technology, the things we use like transport or counselling, and media such as books and magazines.

Nonmaterial culture refers to the abstract, intangible aspects of our culture – such as our ideas, values, social roles, rituals, ethics, and beliefs. The key point is that material culture reflects non-material culture. For example, we choose clothing that represents our values, and maintain traditions that support our ideals. We would therefore expect that cookbooks also reflect our values, such as contemporary values about fresh locally-sourced food, home cooking, and family time.

I am only suggesting that these cookbooks and magazines give us a peek into what is happening of course. If we wanted to know more, we could look at other forms of material culture such as retail advertising and charity appeals, as well as all kinds of other research into behaviour and values.

The Australian Christmas: a sunny festival of home-cooking

The very fact that every food magazine has a Christmas edition and the Australian Women’s Weekly brought out three (yes, three) different Christmas cookbooks this year tells us that Christmas as a festival of home cooking is still very much a tradition here. But what kind of tradition?

Over the years, pick up any Christmas edition of an Australian magazine and you would see a glorious feast of a meal served on a decorated outside table where everything seems soaked in sunlight. The atmosphere presented is always friendly and relaxed. If anything captures the mythology of the perfect Australian Christmas, this is probably it.

Over the years, the recipes have changed though, reflecting social changes. The Complete step-by-step Christmas cookbook published in Australia in the 1980’s gives its readers variations on the traditional European Christmas meal but adapted for summer. So, depending on your taste you could have a hot roast (ham, beef, pork or turkey) while your entrée and dessert were probably cold. By 2008, the magazines became more multicultural. The Christmas edition of Australian Good Food of that year has Kylie Kwong’s ‘delicious mix of Chinese and Australian flavours’ as well as Danish and Italian menus. Australian Women’s Weekly of the next year has three options to choose from: the classic menu, a beach menu and a bush menu.

This all sounds like Australian culture at its core, doesn’t it? The beach, the bush, multiculturalism and European heritage – this list pretty much sums up Australia. But that was then. Not now. This year, the people at Australian Women’s Weekly have brought out three cookbooks and one magazine all of them about Christmas, and each tells a very different story. These are:

  • Australian Women’s Weekly Christmas edition of the magazine. This magazine features the familiar classic menu (roast meats with vegetable medleys and salads), a seafood menu, and a ‘cheat’s menu’ where you have your food ‘ready in a flash’.
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly Christmas Express cookbook promises ‘quick’ dishes that will be ‘on the table in no time’, leading the reader to expect easy to prepare meals.
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly Christmas cookbook believes that ‘your cooking’ will be the ‘centrepiece’ of the party.
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly The Joy of Christmas is a 287 page hardback cookbook which offers four very detailed menus – one ‘with all the trimmings’, a ‘cheat’s Christmas’, a vegetarian Christmas and ‘a shared table’.

Why am I confused?

Unfamiliar foods. One of the characteristics of all traditions, Christmas included, is that they stay more or less the same. If you are invited to a Christmas meal, you generally know more or less what to expect. That’s the point of a tradition. But this year, I don’t know what to expect, if these cookbooks are any guide. In the cookbooks, there are more unfamiliar dishes than familiar ones. I am not sure I would expect to see a ‘stuffed lettuce leaves with bacon’ dish and a ‘watermelon baklava trifle’ at any Christmas function I have ever attended and there are many similar examples.

Where’s the sunlight?  While the 2018 Australian Women’s Weekly magazine continues the ‘sunny outdoors’ theme of previous years, The Joy of Christmas cookbook has turned that on its head. The four Christmas meals presented here are all shown in some kind of rustic log cabin. The colours are dark. People are wearing woolen jumpers and beannies. There is even a fire somewhere. Where is this? What month is this?

Multicultural Christmas seems to have gone by the wayside. I could find no ‘Italian’ Christmas menu for example. Perhaps we take our multiculturalism for granted these days rather than celebrating it?

How to cheat. Overall, I don’t understand what a Christmas ‘cheat’ is. Christmas Express suggests it is someone who has an hour to prepare a meat dish rather than 2 or 3 hours. OK, but I don’t know why that is cheating if you have bought 15 ingredients for the dish, all of them fresh, as the recipe requires. Almost all of the recipes in the ‘Express’ cookbook have at least this many ingredients, often quite hard to source, so cheats still have to spend time shopping according to this thinking. Apparently it is cheating to make ‘Coleslaw three ways’ when it has 18 ingredients but please don’t ask me to explain why. The Joy of Cooking says cheats prepare their meals ahead of time, including Christmas Cake. That’s a relief. I thought buying one was cheating not making one ahead. Phew, not a cheat after all.  

My colleague Lynne Freeman and I pointed out[1] that previous magazines and cookbooks typically decorated their ‘classic’ Christmas menus with baubles, fancy silverware and other Christmas

[1] Lynne Freeman, Susan Bell, (2013) “Women’s magazines as facilitators of Christmas rituals”, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 16 Issue: 3,pp.336-354, https://doi.org/10.1108/13522751311326134 

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