ARCHIVED - Origins Of The Christmas Dinner

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22 Dec 1966  W/C PJ Roy, Commanding Officer, carving the first turkey during the annual Airmens Christmas Dinner served by the officers and senior NCOs.

22 Dec 1966 W/C PJ Roy,
Commanding Officer, carving
the first turkey during
the annual Airmens
Christmas Dinner served
by the officers and senior NCOs.

A custom peculiar to the military is the Christmas tradition of role reversal. The youngest member switches places with the commanding officer for the day, the officers serve dinner to the non-commissioned members and they in turn serve dinner to the stewards. All these activities stem from the ancient Roman custom of Saturnalia.

The festival of Saturnalia honors Saturn and falls at the same time as Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice and/or Kwanzaa. Christmas decorations such as swathes,

Menu 49th Battalion, D. Company, 16 Platoon Christmas Dinner and Concert. Cedric A. Winser / Library and Archives Canada / PA-200686
Menu 49th Battalion, D. Company,
16 Platoon Christmas Dinner &
Concert. Cedric A. Winser / Library
and Archives Canada / PA-200686
garlands, wreaths and tree ornaments began with the merriment of Saturnalia.

During the time of Saturnalia slaves and children got to be waited on for meals, lead the rituals, and participated in the revelry as if they were their parents/masters. The parents/masters jokingly played the part of children and slaves by waiting on them. The role reversal was symbolic as slaves were not really free to make decisions as free persons nor were children able to enter into contracts or make business deals. Role reversal was only for minor privileges.

Canadian soldiers enjoying a few drinks on Christmas Day at the front, Ortona, Italy, 25 December 1943. Library and Archives Canada PA-163936
Canadian soldiers enjoying a few
drinks on Christmas Day at the front,
Ortona, Italy, 25 December 1943.
Library and Archives Canada PA-163936

As with the ancient Romans the Canadian Forces today practices role reversal in terms of minor privileges and in the spirit of good cheer. Although, the origins of the custom cannot be traced to any specific event or even time period, it has however become a 'standard' practice from at least the 18th Century.

Men's Annual Christmas Dinner, 8 Dec 1987 ( L to R) Cpl McCauley J.T. Terminal Equipment Technician 222, Cpl Guerin J.R. Radio Operator 211, MCpl Fisher P.D. Lineman 052. PAC87-677-8
Men's Annual Christmas Dinner,
8 Dec 1987 ( L to R) Cpl
McCauley J.T. Terminal Equipment
Technician 222, Cpl Guerin J.R.
Radio Operator 211, MCpl Fisher
P.D. Lineman 052. PAC87-677-8

Before the introduction of mechanization and sophisticated systems of logistics in the 20th century, enlisted personnel occupied much of their time in tedious routine. In an effort to boost morale, and to show general appreciation for junior ranks, officers took it upon themselves to organize celebrations for the enlisted ranks. One tradition that has been preserved over the ages has been Christmas dinner. Officers and senior non-commissioned officers not only organize the dinner, but they also prepare and serve it to the junior ranks of their unit. When the dinner is over their task is not complete until they clean up the cafeteria.

Christmas dinner including Captain Agar Adamson (2nd from left) of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Agar Stewart Allan Masterton Adamson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-139711
Christmas dinner including
Captain Agar Adamson (2nd
from left) of Princess Patricia's
Canadian Light Infantry. Agar
Stewart Allan Masterton Adamson /
Library and Archives Canada /
PA-139711

On this special occasion, one tradition can be found throughout the Forces during the Christmas season. During these festive times, rules are bent in a playful way. Commanding Officers frequently switch roles and tunics with the youngest member of the unit. This soldier then becomes the honorary commander for the day.

The Base Commander, G/C Mansell, exchanging tunics with LAC BFG Kuske, the youngest airman at CFB Moncton, during the Annual Airmen's Christmas Dinner.
The Base Commander,
G/C Mansell, exchanging
tunics with LAC BFG
Kuske, the youngest
airman at CFB Moncton,
during the Annual Airmen's
Christmas Dinner.

The remainder of the officers and the warrant officers and sergeants exchange their jackets and tunics for chef’s hats and aprons. The practice of exchanging jackets between the senior private and the RSM is a fairly recent innovation, and is indicative of the RSMs important position as an advisor to the CO and as a conduit between the members of the unit and the senior command structure.

Specific traditions during the Christmas season can vary amongst environments and units in the Canadian Forces, For example, in the navy, Christmas lights and decorations have been used to decorate trees, streets, buildings and a ship’s yardarms. In many cases there is an active competition to see who has the best decorations.

Ortona, Italy, Christmas Dinner 1943, Library and Archives Canada, PA 152839
Ortona, Italy, Christmas Dinner 1943,
Library and Archives Canada, PA 152839