Christmas Oysters

When I was growing up we went to my grandparents’ house every year on Christmas morning. Along with the usual farm breakfast feast, there would be fried oysters and oyster stew. It was the only day of the year we had oysters. They were a Christmas morning, once-a-year treat.

I’ve long wondered about the origin of that food tradition. Why do Southerners have fried oysters on Christmas day, even when they’re not otherwise part of the food culture?

Some say the custom came to America with Irish Catholic immigrants. Not being permitted to eat meat on Christmas Eve (but with seafood permissible) the Irish substituted oysters instead.

But given that Catholics were are as rare as hen’s teeth in this part of the world, that explanation seemed unsatisfactory to me.

Recently I discovered an answer that makes more sense. It seems that beginning in the late 19th century, railroads would ship oysters and oranges from the east coast into the interior of the country as Christmas-time treats, causing oysters to become associated with Christmas, along with oranges and Brazil nuts.

Whatever the reason, I always looked forward to fried oysters on Christmas morning, a culinary tradition that is now disappearing here.

Knowing my fondness for Christmas oysters, but not having any actual oysters on hand, yesterday Cherie treated us to a locavore version of the old favorite. We had Po Boy sandwiches made from “faux oyster” cauliflower. These are unbelievably delicious (I know what you’re thinking, I was skeptical too) and the taste and texture really do remind you of fried oysters. Honestly, they’re so good I think I’d choose a cauliflower “oyster” Po Boy over the real thing.

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Of course there’s a lot more to look forward to on Christmas Day than just oysters. We enjoyed my mother’s amazing Southern home-cooking–homemade biscuits, fried pork chops, fried apples, string beans, vegetable soup, chocolate pie–as well as cake and ice cream at our granddaughter’s birthday party (she was a Christmas baby).

Beautiful weather, lots of family time and good food. It was a very merry Christmas.

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22 comments on “Christmas Oysters

  1. shoreacres says:

    I’m much obliged, as we like to say over here. Just yesterday, we were comparing family Christmas customs, and I mentioned our Christmas Eve oyster stew. We had it every year, without fail. I never could understand it, even in retrospect, and my dad had died before I got curious enough to ask. Mom just said, “We had it because that’s what your dad really wanted.”

    The railroad explanation makes sense. Both my mom and dad told stories of getting oranges for Christmas, and my stocking always had an orange and Brazil nuts in it — a suggesting they were re-creating a familiar custom for me. And of course we always had that Christmas nut bowl, which probably was related. Only at Christmas, there were fancy nuts in the shell: English walnuts, almonds, filberts (hazelnuts?) and pecans. Everyone had nut crackers and nut picks, and it was considered a high time to sit around and crack nuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      We got always got oranges and nuts and Christmas too and we too had nutcrackers and nut picks. I ate the English walnuts first, because they were the easiest to crack.

      My grandfather used “much obliged” rather than “thank you.” Interestingly, he used “thank you” to mean something like “thank you in advance” (as in, “thank you for the potatoes,” meaning “please pass the potatoes”).

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  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, oysters are not real high on my list of things to eat. My mother in law is from New Jersey and enjoys oysters on the half shell. There’s not a whole lot of chewing or tasting those. They just dowse them in Tabasco sauce and slug them down. I’m thinking that I would like the mock cauliflower oysters better.

    I don’t really remember any traditional Christmas breakfasts when growing up. It was pretty much the same as any other day I guess. We did get fruit in our stocking and did have nuts in the shell at Christmas time. As my sister and I got older the nuts in the shell become buts without the shell. I’m not sure why. Maybe Dad got tired of cracking the nuts as he was the one that ate most of them. Dad grew up in the 1920s and 1930s so I’m real sure that fruit and nuts were a treat during that time. Berries are the big thing in the Midwest. Mulberries grow wild and raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries can be easily cultivated in gardens. Apple trees do well here. Pear, peach, and apricot trees can produce here as well depending on when the last frost happens. On the years they make it through the last frost, they produce abundantly. So there is some fruit in the Midwest but not oranges or bananas.

    The only buts we really have here in the Midwest is the Black Walnuts. They grow wild and usually end up being an entire grove of Black Walnut trees when found. Black walnuts are really difficult to process. The shell is really hard and the black that comes off the shell stains every thing including skin. Black Walnut trees can grow to be huge in size and dump bushels of walnuts on the ground.

    Have a great day after Christmas. Only 364 to go until the next Christmas. 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      The only thing different about Christmas breakfast I can recall is the oysters. Well, and the fact that us children would have tummies full of candy, fruit and nuts by the time we sat down for breakfast.

      We have black walnuts here and yes they are a pain to get out of the shells. I’ve done it a few times and my mother says it was a winter job for children on the farm when she was growing up.

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  3. The how and why of traditions is always fascinating to me. Mandarin oranges in the toe of the stocking with a handful of nuts is part of my family tradition – and my husband’s family did the orange in the toe but not the nuts. In the shell, like Dave. I think that might be an English thing. No oysters, despite living on the coast as I do. But there are plenty of people for whom oysters are part of Christmas. Do those people bring that tradition from other parts of the continent? Or even a different continent? Who knows…I mean, it’s all very well saying the railway company spread the tradition by promoting oranges and oysters inland, but what made them think of those two particular products? There are plenty of other hard to ship seasonal foods – why oysters? Why not lobster or crab? Why oranges and not bananas? Was there a tradition somewhere else that was in the family background of some railway shipping magnate that resonated with landowners in the West? Traditions usually have roots in something very practical, and while the railway angle makes sense, and fits perfectly, I feel like it must go back a little further still.

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    • shoreacres says:

      I found this traditional story about Bishop Nicholas, who became Saint Nicholas, who became Saint Nick, aka Santa Claus:

      One day, he learned of a poor man with three daughters who had no dowries and hence could not marry.

      The next night Nicholas returned and tossed three bags of gold for the daughters’ dowries through the chimney. They happened to land in the stockings of the three maidens, which had been hung to dry in front of the fireplace. The bags of gold turned into balls of gold, which are symbolized to this very day by oranges.

      Saint Nicholas often is portrayed wearing the red ceremonial robes and miter of a bishop, and holding a bishop’s staff. In addition, he often is shown holding three gold balls, or three oranges.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I haven’t found a clear answer on the internet or in my food history books. Some say the tradition of oyster stew on Christmas Eve comes from the Irish. Others say German immigrants brought it over. Some say oysters at Christmas are a Southern tradition. Others say it’s a New England tradition. I did find a reference to English settlers feasting on oysters at the first Christmas in Virginia in 1609.

      I couldn’t find it today, but last year I found an article attributing the popularity of oysters at Christmas to railroads delivering oysters and other treats at Christmas time. Maybe the answer does go ultimately go back to the “no meat on Christmas Eve” rule.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I too grew up with mandarin oranges and brazil nuts in the shell in the bottoms of our stockings – never questioned it til you brought the railways up.
    I knew a family of Irish Catholics who celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve – it was an elaborate party with all the food being some form of seafood. It was always my favorite holiday party. I think I read somewhere that it originated in Italy and has to do with not eating meat on the eve before the big Christmas Day feast.
    M and I both love oysters and being on the coast, they are pretty much at our fingertips year ’round (except we generally don’t eat them in the warmer months – or as they say “months with no ‘r’s in them, May – August).
    I might have to try the cauliflower po’boy just because I’ve recently decided I want to try eating cauliflower more often, but I ADORE oyster po’boys.

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    • Bill says:

      The cauliflower/oyster Po Boys are really good. The batter has cajun seasoning and other things and is served with a spicy homemade mayonnaise. I should get Cherie to post the recipe.

      Fried oysters are one of my favorite foods, so when I say these compare favorably, that’s high praise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve got to say, my grandma always made oyster soup on Christmas Eve. I didn’t like it at all as a child, and haven’t tried it since. So, cauliflower sounds great, instead! I do love other seafood, though, and living in Oregon, we have lots of opportunities to have it. It looks like you had a great Christmas. Ours was awesome, too.

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    • Bill says:

      Glad you had a great Christmas. Ours was really nice and we’ve spent today visiting and hanging out with family, which has also been good.

      It seems that oyster stew on Christmas Eve is a popular tradition all over the country. We always had it on Christmas morning, but a cousin told me today that they always had it on Christmas Eve. The origin of the tradition is still something of a mystery.

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  6. Dearest Bill,
    Oh, I would certainly enjoy Cherie’s Christmas Oyster version! Anything prepared with love is good.
    Glad you had a meaningful family time.
    Sending you hugs for the last Sunday of 2015.
    Mariette

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  7. Yes to oranges, nuts, and chocolate (of course) in the carefully hung stockings. Santa is a smart old fellow. But oysters for breakfast? No, no, no. 🙂 Sorry, Bill, I am just not an oyster fan. When My mother cooked oysters, my sister and I got something else. That, along with liver, were the only two foods on my do not eat list. I can sort of handle liver now. Peggy loves oysters, so I try one on occasion. The answer is always the same. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      You know the old joke–the first person to ever eat an oyster must have been very brave (and hungry). I do love them, but understand they’re not for everyone. But liver? I’ll pass on that. 🙂

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      • Did you ever hear the story of the dish known as the Hangtown Fry, Bill? It’s and egg and oyster dish that is occasionally found on menus in California. Hangtown was a Mother Lode town, which is now known as Placerville, and was 3 miles away from where I was raised. The story goes that a man was scheduled to be hung the next day but claimed he was innocent. (Hangtown got its name for a reason.) Anyway he was given an opportunity to order as his last meal, whatever he wanted. He came up with the concoction of eggs and oysters. Hangtown didn’t have any oysters so they had to oder them out of San Francisco, a journey of at least two days. As I recall the story, the extra time gave him time to prove his innocence. At least that is the way I choose to remember the story. 🙂 –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Oranges and Brazil nuts here for Christmas, and oyster stew on New Year’s Eve for some reason. New Year’s eve was my dad’s birthday and my mom and dad’s wedding anniversary. Even after my dad died my mom still fixed oyster stew for herself to “celebrate” their wedding anniversary. None of us kids ever took much of a liking to oysters in any form so that tradition died out when my mom passed.

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    • Bill says:

      The traditional New Year’s Day meal here is blackeyed peas, turnip greens and hog jowls. The peas are indispensable. Without them you’ll have bad luck all year. I didn’t like them when I was growing up but my mother would make me eat at least one, lest she feel guilty for the bad luck which would follow if I didn’t.

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  9. avwalters says:

    We did the oranges (sometimes tangerines) and brazil nuts–but no oysters. We also had a bowl of nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and brazil nuts) on the hearth with several nutcrackers. A kid could while away an evening in the warmth of the fire, cracking nuts and listening to the adults, swapping lies. I continued the tradition well into my own adulthood. Then, one year, we were awakened in the night by strange noises from the living room. As we threw on the lights, a raccoon scurried away from his bounty–and out the cat door. The living room was a mess, because that raccoon didn’t know enough to sweep the spent shells into the fireplace.

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  10. Lynda says:

    Is there to be a recipe for the faux fried oysters? They sound really good!

    Like

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