Oyster stew is cited in print from at least 1843. Oysters are traditionally served in the “R” months when the weather gets cold (that is, not May, June, July, or August, all months without the letter “r” in them); oyster stew has long been popular in the month of December.
It is not known exactly when the tradition of Christmas eve oyster stew began, but specific references were made to this holiday practice in the 1930s.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
oyster stew n.
1846 D. CORCORAN Pickings 128 Mrs. Smith was never known to have an *oyster stew of an evening that she did not divide it with Mrs. Jones.
1903 Speaker 24 Jan. 419/1 The men..wolfing up meals of oyster stew in an atmosphere of perpetual dyspepsia.
1988 Gourmet Oct. 218/2 Mother made oyster stew for Christmas eve supper, fried oysters with cornmeal coating for Christmas breakfast, and escalloped oysters for Christmas dinner.
5 February 1843, New Orleans (LA) Picayune, pg. 2:
if Mrs. Jones had buckwheat cakes for breakfast, she always sent in one to Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Smith was never known to have an oyster stew of an evening that she did not divide it with Mrs. Jones.
9 April 1910, Baltimore (MD) American, pg. 5:
“And I’m going to make coffee now and oyster stew and you must come and eat with me, for it’s lonely on Christmas eve—alone.”
24 December 1921, Lexington (KY) Herald, pg. 5:
Y.W.C.A. Cafeteria serves Christmas Dinner Monday 11 to 1:30. Oyster stew, Supper 5 to 7. Adv.
23 December 1931, Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel, pg. 9, col. 1 ad:
We have had to double our orders on Rowe’s Quality Northern Oysters this week. There’s a big demand for Oysters for stuffing and lots of people have Oyster Stew Christmas Eve. Rowe’s Oysters, 39c pt.
Living Together in the Family:
A Study of Family Relationships
Published by American Home Economics Association
In another the Christmas Eve dinner is always an oyster stew. It is served by the father from a huge soup tureen that has been in the family for years.
27 December 1940, Daily Sitka Sentinel (Sitka, AK), pg. 4, col. 3:
The eleventh annual Christmas oyster stew was held by Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Yaw Christmas evening. All the faculty of the Mission were in attendance.
Each year after the Christmas busy time has passed for the teachers Mr. and Mrs. Yaw hold their famous oyster stew.
24 December 1942, Titusville (PA) Herald, pg. 2. col. 4:
The next gathering will be in the form of a Christmas oyster stew dinner.
19 December 1957, Uniontown (PA) Evening Standard, “Oyster Stew Brightens Up Christmas Eve Activities” by Gaynor Maddox (NEA Food and Markets Editor), pg. 27, cols. 2-3:
Trimming the tree on Christmas Eve and oyster stew afterwards are traditional in many American homes. Served in a large tereen, the oysters in rich seasoned cream with toasted French bread and a dry white wine or fruit beverage reward the trimmers for their glittering work. Lots of coffee and a tray of fresh fruit and cheese winds up these preparations for Santa Claus’ arrival.
Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(Makes 6 servings
Two tablespoons butter, 1/2 onion sliced, 1 small clove garlic, sprig parsley, 1/4 cup chopped celery tops, 1 small bay leaf, pinch of thyme, 6 cups milk, 1 pint light green or evaporated milk, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon mace, 36 oysters with liquor, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, few drops pepper sauce, 5 slices yeast-raised French bread toasted and buttered.
Melt butter; add carrot, onion, garlic, parsley, celery tops, bay leaf and thyme. Cook over very low heat about 10 minutes. Add milk, cream, salt and mace. Bring slowly to boil. Put oysters and juice in large kettle; strain milk mixture over them and bring back to boil. Add Worcestershire sauce and pepper sauce. Place a slice of prepared French bread in six individual bowls and spoon stew over the bread. If desired, sprinkle with paprika.
23 December 1957, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Substitute Seafood Chowder for Traditional Oyster Stew” by Julie Benell, part 3, pg. 2:
Oyster stew is traditional in many American homes for Christmas Eve, and this year, you might like to vary that custom and serve a creamy seafood chowder that is truly a work of art.
23 December 1958, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Recipes of the Day” by Julie Benell, section 3, pg. 2:
You’ll need 1/4 cup butter, 2 onions sliced, 1 clove garlic quartered or 1/4 teaspoon garlic puree, 1 carrot, sliced, 1 stalk celery, sprig of parsley, 2 seeds thyme, 2 cups milk, 1 cup heavy cream, 1 cup oyster liquor (or oyster liquor plus milk to make 1 cup), 2 cups or 2 dozen oysters, 1/2 teaspoon salt, few grinds of fresh pepper, dash Worcestershire sauce, dash Tabasco.
Melt butter in large saucepan, add onions, garlic, carrot, celery, parsley and thyme, cover and cook about 10 minutes. Add milk, cream, and oyster liquor. Heat until hot but do not boil. Strain into another saucepan. Add oysters and cook just until oysters curl at edges. Add salt and pepper. Just before serving, add Worcestershire and Tabasco. Serves four.
10 December 1960, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Jim Beard Expounds on Food,” section 3, pg. 1:
“After the drudgery of Christmas parties with their endless displays of candies, cookies and cakes with eggnog, I like on Christmas Eve to give friends who drop in some oyster stew and buttered toast with champagne.”
11 February 1971, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Historic Site Is Setting for Annual Gourmet Oyster Roast,” section E, pg. 5:
Indians originated the winter oyster roast. Within a short time this idea was picked up by colonists in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
“The theory is the colder the weather, the sweeter the oyster,” says Mrs. Schierf.
Oyster stew has become a Christmas Eve tradition in many American homes. But the dish is a delectable treat any time, especially when the weather takes on a wintry nip.
The Armchair James Beard
By James Beard,
Edited by John Ferrone
Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot
If there is any traditional Christmas Eve dish in this country, I guess it is probably Oyster Stew. Surely it is one of the more delicious dishes when hot and rich and served with piles of crisp buttered toast. You can go as rich as you please here. Try it with milk, with milk and cream, or, to be utterly fabulous, with heavy cream.
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 pint milk
1 1/2 pints oysters and liquor
Salt, pepper, and cayenne
Chopped parsley or paprika (...)