Unlike Thanksgiving, there no longer seems to be a clear cut Christmas meal. For some, turkeys make an encore appearance for the December holidays. For others, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a leg of lamb, prime rib, lasagna, or other signature dish. Although my family opts for lechón (a whole pig on a spit—Caribbean tradition) or a crown roast, traditional Christmas still calls to mind a crosshatched ham dotted with cloves and pineapple rings.
Where did the Christmas ham come from? As with many current traditions, it sprouted from pagan roots. In Norse winter solstice rituals, it was typical to present a whole boar’s head to Freyr, the god of harvest and fertility. The remaining pork was then cooked and eaten in holiday feasts. When the pagans were converted to Christianity, this existing tradition was ascribed to St. Stephen—whose feast day falls on December 26th.
For whatever reason, these days most families don’t showcase a whole boar’s head on their Christmas tables. When folks imagine Christmas ham, most think of a pre-cooked, pre-cured, preserved – and often canned – product. In many ways, our taste buds have been trained by typical store-bought ham. If you’d like to harken back to Christmas’ culinary origins, and create a unique taste and experience, try starting from scratch with a fresh ham – it makes for a much better flavor.
We’ve tried a recipe from the New York Times that maximizes the potential of fresh ham. If you brine your own meat, you get to adjust the sweetness, saltiness, and tenderness to your liking. We highly recommend this unique twist on an old school, Viking favorite: