Mince Pies—England’s Medieval Advent Treat

We were watching the Rick Steves Christmas special (again) last week with the 12 days of Christmas on the brain. So when Rick mentioned that an English family was baking mince pies so they could eat one for each of the 12 days, we took notice. 

On the Sixth Day of Imported Christmas, we baked tiny mince pies. We were too excited to make them from scratch, so we cheated, using canned mince and frozen pie dough. We also only managed to get nine pies out of the ingredients, so we’ll have to make more to finish out our 12 days. 

Mincemeat pies are an English staple dating back to the 13th century when Crusaders returned from the Holy Land with new spices and recipes. Traditionally, English Christians made their mince pies manger-shaped and included three spices—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to represent the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child. These pies also included minced meat, suet, fruit, and a preservative (usually alcohol). By the 18th century, the filling began to transition to just fruit instead of meat. 

Modern mince pies are much smaller, but still contain the mandatory three spices. They also often include a pastry star on top to represent the star of Bethlehem. Though they can be eaten year-round, they are pretty much a requirement at Christmas time. Children leave mince pies out for Santa (one of his favorites). And some people still ascribe to the belief that eating one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (between Christmas and Epiphany) will bring good luck. 

Mince pies receive mixed reviews in modern America, but they were a staple through the 1940s. A 1907 Washington Post editorialist said of mince pie, “There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplighting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust.” Of course, the same article that quotes that editorialist mentions that these pies caused everything from indigestion to murder and thwarted prohibition with minces that were 14% alcohol. 

This year, I found that knowing the history and symbolism of these tiny pies made them much more significant than just “that raisin pie that my grandma really likes.” So whatever your feelings about mince, I hope you’ll give the tiny pies a chance this Christmas. 

Twelve Days of Imported Christmas

  1. The First Day: Sfincione—Sicily’s Christmas Pizza
  2. The Second Day: Pavuchky—Ukraine’s 8-Legged Decorators
  3. The Third Day: Chicken Bones—New Brunswick’s Crunchy Christmas Treat
  4. The Fourth Day: Advent Wreath—Germany’s Candlelit Countdown
  5. The Fifth Day: Julbord—Sweden’s Christmas Feast
  6. The Sixth Day: Mince Pies—England’s Medieval Advent Treat

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