12/29/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

How Many Pounds Did You Get for Christmas?

How can anyone not gain weight during the holiday season? Starting with the national binge day, Thanksgiving, the country seems to be in a whirlwind of feasting and drinking. Or at least it seems that way... Stores typically selling shoes or sheets now feature shelves full of imported cakes, candies, nuts, jams, processed meats and cheeses all seemingly encased in hard to remove plastic wrap, as well as fancy liquors whose bottles resembling perfume jars. Going into a home goods store the other day in search of a potato grater (mine seems to have disappeared), I had to avert my eyes from these food displays, feeling my blood cholesterol rising simply by walking past them. Healthy recipes featured on the Food Network, morning television shows and magazines will not appear until the beginning of the new year. Kale salads and quinoa somehow do not have the same appeal as sugar-coated pecans, pork roast wrapped with bacon, the ubiquitous sausage, egg and cheese casseroles, or spinach pureed with heavy cream. And as with the menu for Thanksgiving, the holiday tables, be they set for dinner or a party, must have more food than could possibly be consumed by the guests.

Eating special foods on holidays, and indeed eating much more than normal on holidays, is a very old tradition. The meals were special in large part because they were so different from the sparse and often nutritionally inadequate foods people ate during the rest of the year. Protein-rich foods such as meat, chicken, lamb, pork, and even eggs were simply too costly. Oftentimes foods such as eggs and cheese were sold, rather than eaten, so there would be money to buy the less expensive flour, corn, potatoes, beans and rice. Sweetening agents like honey and sugar were also excessively expensive and thus reserved for celebratory occasions. Fruits such as oranges and bananas, which for us are affordable and available throughout the year, were so rare that an orange took on the status of a Christmas gift.

In the countless books by people surviving in environments isolated by geography, weather, and war, Christmas day was usually a time for eating special foods hoarded for the occasion and made even more precious by previous deprivation. In diary kept by the explorer, Ernest Shackleton during his 1902 trip to the Antarctica with Captains Scott and Edward Wilson, he writes of the chronic hunger all of them experienced, and then records what he managed to make for Christmas:

Christmas breakfast:- a pannikin of seal’s liver, with bacon mixed with biscuits. Each; topped up with a spoonful of blackberry jam; then I set the camera, and we took our photographs with the Union Jack flying and our sledge flags, - I arranged this by connecting a piece of rope line to the lever. Then four hours march. Had a hot lunch. I was cook:- Bovril, chocolate and Plasmon biscuit, two spoonfuls of jam each – Grand!

Then another three hours march and we camped for the night. I was cook and took thirty-five minutes to cook two pannikins of N.A.O. ration and biscuit for the hoosh, boiled the plum pudding, and made cocoa. I must of coarse own up that I boiled the plum pudding in the water I boiled the cocoa in, for economys sake, but I think it was fairly quick time. The other two chaps did not know about the plum pudding. It only weighed six oz. And I had stowed away in my socks (clean ones) in my sleeping bag, with a little piece of holly. It was a glorious surprise to them – that plum pudding, when I produced it. They immediately got our emergency allowance of brandy so as to set it on fire in proper style. [1]

Shackleton saved food from the men's daily intake so that there could be a special Christmas feast, even if the foods of the "feast" were meager and calorically inadequate. They did eat excessively, but of course they did so only because they typically were consuming so little. In contrast, because most of us are so well fed daily, (unless we are on a diet) in order for us to view a Christmas, Thanksgiving or any other celebratory meal as special, the meal must contain an excessive quantity and variety of food and drink. And alas for many the consequence of this overindulgence is taking home the gift of unwanted pounds.

For the homesteader trying to survive a brutal prairie winter or the sweat shop laborer earning barely enough to pay the rent, if in the unlikely event weight had been gained at a holiday meal, it was lost quickly. Once the holiday was over, people went back to their barely-calorically-adequate and unvaried diets. In her book 97 Orchard St about the lives of tenement dwellers in New York City in the late 19th century, Jane Ziegelman relates how some families eat as their only food for weeks a soup made out of potatoes, onions, and carrots along with stale bread (cheaper than fresh). Others lived on a soup made from lima beans, barley and a chunk of potatoes. No-one kept those pounds from the December feast season for long.

Alas, not so today. Typically by the first of the year, the pounds gathering on our bellies and hips from Thanksgiving are still around by the time we move into the New Year. Some of us attempt to dispose of these pounds by adopting the soups and meager diets of our great grandparents; others with cleanses of lemon juice and water, dinners of charred meat, and copious quantities of green leaves sprinkled with vinegar.

It makes no sense, this going from excessive feasting to self-imposed famine. How much better to make the excesses of the holidays those of generosity and friendship; these are "pounds" that one will gladly take into the new year.