Mince pies have been associated with Christmas since at least the 17th century. In 1662 Samuel Pepys wrote a diary entry for the 6th of January of an evening's repast with his friend Sir William Penn. Sir William served Pepys 'a good chine of beef and other good cheer, eighteen mince pies in a dish, the number of years that he [William] has been married.┬ĺ From the date (6th January), it sounds as if Pepys may also have been participating in another tradition associated with mince pies; that of eating one a day over the twelve days of Christmas, which run until the 6th of January.
The custom is that each pie is meant to bring you happiness for a month, so if you have eaten the full quota then a happy year is on the cards. You are supposed to eat each mince pie as the guest of a different household. Earlier in the 17th century the Puritans banned mince pies, along with many other things, as symbols of indecent excess. They felt that Christmas celebrations were getting out of hand, and that the true significance of Christmas was being overlooked.
In 1644 they passed an Act of Parliament that banned Christmas celebrations, although no doubt some more discreet pleasures, such as food, continued to be observed. With the Restoration in 1660 came a return to pre Puritan festivities, so Samuel Pepys was partaking in the renewed enjoyment of dishes such as mince pies.
For the Scottish the ban on Christmas celebrations came even earlier, with the ousting of the Catholic Church, in 1583 and were continued by the Presbyterians right through into the 20th century.
The mince pies we eat today have an ancestry reaching back to medieval times. During the Medieval period meat and fish pies were often sweetened with dried fruits, sugar and spices. A small pie known as a 'chewette' was based either on meat or fish, depending on whether it was a fasting (non meat) day or not. These pies were enriched with fruits and spices. The Medieval cook had a fondness for using such ingredients, most likely because of their 'exotic' nature, just as we today like to seek out ingredients from across the globe.
In the 16th century similar pies were known as 'shred', 'shredded' or 'minced' pies, names that described the preparation of the meat content. From the mid 17th century onwards the meat content of the pies gradually reduced, although Mrs Beeton writing 200 years later gave a recipe for mincemeat based on mutton. Today the majority of the mincemeat spooned into our mince pies is meat free, but much still includes beef suet and so we continue to eat the distant relations of the medieval chewette, and the Tudor shredded pie. So spare a thought this Christmas; however you prefer to enjoy your mince pie, you are indulging in a little piece of history that has changed little over hundreds of years.