by Michele D. Baker
This article was originally published in the December 2022 / January 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI magazine
As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, across the world people are getting ready for winter celebrations and the delicious dishes that go with them. In Britain and the USA, Christmas means roast turkey with all the trimmings. In France, they enjoy the lavish Réveillon on Christmas Eve. In South Africa, it’s all about outdoor braais, or barbecues. Here are just a few of the many luscious, food-filled holidays this season:
December 6: Nikolaustag (Saint Nicholas Day) (Germany/Netherlands)
On the night of December 5, children all over Germany and the Netherlands tidy their rooms, polish their shoes, and set them on the doorstep (or window sill, or by the fire) before going to bed. In the morning, good children wake to find Saint Nicholas has come and filled the footwear with fruit, nuts, candies, and small toys and gifts.
December 18-26: Hanukkah (worldwide)
Throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, a festival of lights commemorating the reclamation of their temple in Jerusalem, Jewish families celebrate by eating latkes (fried potato pancakes) with sour cream and apple sauce, sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts), gelt (foil wrapped chocolate “coins”), beef brisket, noodle kugel, and chocolate babka. Hanukkah Sameach!
December 20: Kimtee Inmewit (United States)
The Umatilla Native American tribes of eastern Oregon hold their “new year” ceremony just before the Winter Solstice on December 20 in a celebration called “Kimtee Inmewit.” Tribal history dictates that the first food that was created was the nusux (salmon), the second was the nukt (deer), and the third was a bitter root called sliiton. New Year is a time to celebrate the return of the sacred foods with singing, drums, dancing, prayers, and a shared meal of meat stew and fry bread.
December 25: Christmas Day (Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa)
When you think of Christmas food, turkey and dressing are often high on the list. But in South Africa, it’s festive fried caterpillars! This may seem like an unusual Christmas tradition but eating the Pine Tree Emperor Moth – or Christmas caterpillar – with its red, blue, and green bands and black and gold spots, is believed to gift a little extra luck on the coming year.
December 25: Christmas Day (Japan)
In 1974, a fast-food franchise famous for its chicken released a festive marketing campaign in Japan. Their slogan “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) hatched a national tradition – including Colonel Santa, complete with red and white suit – that continues to this day. Although it isn’t a national holiday in Japan, each Christmas, families from all over the country celebrate with nearly a million pre-reserved, piping hot chicken dinners.
December 25: Christmas Day (Australia)
Christmastime in Australia is high summer, so Christmas dinner for many Aussies is a mid-day picnic featuring boiled prawns or a trip to the beach to go surfing with Santa. The holiday is an all-day affair, and Christmas lunches are relaxed, with lots of eating and breaks for playing a “spot of cricket” or a quick splash in the backyard pool. Christmas crackers – those gaily wrapped paper tubes that when pulled go BANG! – are a must. (Yes, you must to wear the paper crown inside!)
December 25: Christmas Day (Latin America)
Nearly every family in Latin America has its own tamale recipe pulled out only at Christmastime. The feast also includes turkey; ham and pulled pork; tostones (fried plantain chips); natilla, a traditional flan custard which can be eaten as a sweet or a savory; “Christmas rice;” and many delectable desserts such as buñelos, small balls of fried dough sweetened with honey or sugar and stuffed with yams or cheese; arroz con leche (rice pudding); and polvorones, a buttery sugar cookie. On January 6, many families celebrate with roscón de Reyes (Three Kings’ Day cake), a sweet, crown-shaped bread topped with fruit and candy.
December 26: Saint Stephen’s Day (Spain)
In Catalonia in northeastern Spain, Saint Stephen’s Day is celebrated on the day after Christmas with the paternal side of the family. The feast includes cannelloni noodles stuffed with the ground leftover turkey, chicken, or goose cooked the previous day and covered with tomato sauce and cheese. Since the tradition is to eat with the maternal family on Christmas Day, this “Festa Mitjana” (“Second Christmas Day”) gives people a chance to visit – and eat! – with both sides of the family.
December 26 – January 1: Kwanzaa (United States)
Inspired by a variety of sub-Saharan African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa gets its name from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” There are no menu rules; it all depends on family traditions. The focal point is often some kind of one-pot stew or braise: Ghanaian groundnut stew, West Indian or South African curry dishes, Philadelphia pepper pot stew, jambalaya, Nigerian jollof rice or Senegalese thieboudienne. Also typical are familiar foods such as catfish, collards, macaroni and cheese, jerk chicken, gumbo, accras (Caribbean fritters), candied yams, buttermilk biscuits and spoonbread, and fried plantains.
January 1: Hogmanay (Scotland)
Immediately after midnight in the first few hours of the Scottish new year, a dark-haired male or “first foot” visits nearby houses bringing with him symbolic pieces of coal (heat), salt (friendship), shortbread and a black bun – a dark, rich fruit cake wrapped in pastry (plenty of food all year), and a “wee dram of whisky” (good cheer and hospitality), ensuring that the house will experience abundance in all these things in the coming year.
January 1: New Year’s Day (United States)
“Eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year,” says an old saying here in the South. Many of us eat specific foods on New Year’s Day to bring good luck and prosperity for the remainder of the year. All kinds of greens (collards, mustard or turnip greens, cabbage) symbolize dollars, and black-eyed peas symbolize coins, both of which point to money; yellow cornbread represents gold; and pork or ham brings “forward motion” or “advancement” in the year ahead.
January 6: Coptic Christmas Eve (Egypt)
On Christmas Eve (January 6, according to the Julian calendar), Coptic Christians attend a special church service that lasts until midnight. Congregants share a specific type of bread called “qurban” (“offering”) marked with 12 dots symbolizing the 12 apostles of Christ. The priest distributes one loaf during communion, and the other qurban will be shared among the congregation after the service as a form of blessing.
January 7: Coptic Christmas Day (Egypt)
On Christmas Day in Egypt, houses are decorated with trees and lights, families visit for fun and fellowship, and children open their gifts. A proper Christmas feast includes fattah, a traditional Egyptian dish cooked with meat, rice, and crispy bread, all topped with tangy tomato-garlic sauce. (Fattah is also a popular celebration dish on the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.) Dessert is sugar-coated almonds and kahk, a butter biscuit filled with nuts or date paste and dusted with powdered sugar.
January 7: Russian Orthodox Christmas Day (Russia)
For many who follow the Orthodox religion, fasting for 40 days before Christmas and refraining from meat, dairy, and eggs is a common practice, so many of the traditional Russian dishes make the most of their return to the menu! A luxurious Christmas dinner might include pirozhki (stuffed buns), deviled eggs, kulebyaka (salmon pie), pegach (stuffed bread rolls), pelmeni (meat dumplings), golubtsi (cabbage rolls), blini, and tefteli (meatballs). Desserts are pryaniki (spice cookies), sbiten (a sweet and spicy honey drink), and Kiev cake with layers of cashew or hazelnut meringue and Russian buttercream. Nostrovia!
January 22 – Tet (Vietnam)
Tet, or Lunar New Year, is the festival of the first morning of the first day. (Usually, Tet occurs on the same day as Chinese New Year.) It’s an occasion for pilgrimages and family reunions, fireworks and lion dances, and huge meals of bahn chung (sticky rice cake stuffed with pork and mung beans), gio cha (sausage), thit kho trung (braised pork with duck eggs for good luck), candied fruit and melon seeds. The altar must be decorated with a five-fruit tray, and the colors of the fruit are important. Popular fruits are orange, banana, pomelo, green apple, papaya, mango, coconut, and dragon fruit.