Happily, each culture has its own holidays and its own traditions.
Even when cultures share holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s Day, the foods used to celebrate tend to be very different based on history, myth and geography. The Christmas breads in Greece, for instance, get shaped like the domes of Orthodox churches. In Vietnam, abalone soup marks the lunar New Year.
In the United States, parents keep the Santa Claus legend alive for their children by setting out a treat for Santa when he comes: typically milk and cookies on the hearth. In England, Santa goes by “Father Christmas” and his tastes tend toward mince pie and a small glass of sherry. According to the BBC Glossary of Food Terms, mince pies once contained meat, thus the common term “mincemeat”. However, today mince pies hold a spicy preserve of dried and candied fruit like apples, prunes, currants and raisins that are steeped in brandy or rum. When topped with crust, you call it a mince pie. When there’s no top crust, you’ve got a tart. Parents who put out mince pie for Santa might leave a few crumbs behind as added evidence, in addition to the presents under the tree, showing he was indeed there.
On Christmas Eve in Greece, children walk through the streets of their villages, singing Christmas carols announcing the birth of Christ, for which neighbors and shopkeepers reward them with sweets and fruit. It sounds like a hybrid of Christmas and Halloween. And there are some goblins involved: During the holidays, holy water sprinkled throughout a house wards off tiny mythical and mischievous creatures called killantzaroi, which can spook horses and cause milk to spoil. The fireplace goes full blast during the 12 days of Christmas because these creatures are thought to enter from the chimney. On Christmas Day, the intensity simmers down and families spend quiet time in church and with each other. Central to the celebration is Christopsomto, or Christ’s bread, on the table. A Greek cross decorates the top of this loaf, with candied cherries or walnut halves on the ends of the cross. Often, the top of the loaf includes objects reflecting the family’s profession.
During Easter in Russia, holiday foods exude symbolism. Orthodox Russian women make cakes with elaborately decorated rounded tops to represent the domes of Orthodox churches. These cakes might be given to priests or eaten at home on Easter. The soup of the day contains chickpeas to symbolize fertility, eggs to represent rebirth and green leaves to hearken spring. To symbolize Jesus’ tomb, soft cheese with butter, fruits and nuts get formed into a pyramid with the top cut off. This cake is known as pashka, which is the Russian word for Easter. The red-dyed hard-boiled eggs you see all over Russia during Christmas represent Christ’s resurrection. The red colouring comes not from chemical dyes, but from boiling beets or red onions peels, both of which abound in Russia. Often, families carry the eggs to church for consecration.
The week of festivities known as Fiestas Patrias began Sept. 18, 1810, to celebrate Chile’s independence from Spain, which had created major settlements in Chile in the mid-1500s. Today, Fiestas Patrias celebrates civic pride in what it means to be Chilean, and millions of Chileans hit the road and skies to visit friends and families across the country. They also have picnics, parades and rodeos. And of course, there must be food. The emblematic food of the festivities revolves around empanadas, a breadlike pastry filled with meats, fruits, raisins, olives, hard-boiled eggs and other items. Beef also reigns, and so many barbecues take place that meat sales spike markedly for the week. A typical dessert is alfajor, with two cookies bound together with a filling, kind of like a Chilean Oreo, and often coated with powdered sugar.
Winter solstice is a big deal in Korea. Solstice occurs around Dec. 21 (depending on the alignment of the Earth to the sun) and has the least amount of daytime and most amount of night time of any other 24-hour period in the year. The solstice signals a longer days and is celebrated in many parts of the world. Korean celebration of winter solstice revolves around red bean paste porridge, a rich, stick-to-your ribs soup. To make it, cook the red beans until they form a paste, and then add small balls made of rice that is equally overcooked. In Korea, the red beans symbolize the chasing away of bad spirits, and the rice balls symbolize new life. It’s traditional to eat one rice ball for each year of your life. Because chilly weather on winter solstice is believed to bring better fortune and health for the coming year than warm weather, what you really want is a frigid, cold day in which to savour your warm porridge.
What could be more exciting than a New Year that is headed toward better prosperity? In Italy, serving lentils helps that possibility along. If you’ve enjoyed lentils, you know these small legumes are flat and round. In fact, they remind some people of coins, and thus lentil soup is considered prosperity-boosting. According to celebrity cookbook author Nigella Lawson, a spicy sausage called cotechino typically accompanies the lentils. After a night of partying and toasting in the New Year, a hearty meal is perhaps just what the doctor ordered. Grapes also play a big part in a New Year celebration, and Italians try to consume as many as possible at midnight, when the New Year officially begins, with the grapes symbolizing a year of good health. In Spain and Malta, Lawson notes, the grape-eating is more measured and tradition and superstition calls for eating one grape for each month of the coming year to bring about health. In Italy, though, the more grapes you can consume, the better.
If you’re traveling in China this New Year’s Eve, plan on enjoying whole steamed fish and uncut noodles. The whole fish, with head and tail intact, is a symbol of long life, good fortune and family togetherness. On some tables, you’ll find a whole chicken with the head and feet still on. The uncut noodles symbolize longevity, and the longer the noodles, the longer the life. You might also eat baked goods with dates, chestnuts and seeds. But be careful about how much of these baked goods you consume, especially if your family is already complete; the seeds represent fertility.
Midsummer is almost a high holiday in Sweden. That’s because this country, closer than most to the North Pole, enjoys a very brief summertime period when plants and food can grow. Summer begins in May, peaks in June and is pretty much over by September, when the frigid, dormant season begins. There’s an old joke about Sweden: It has three seasons: this winter, last winter and next winter. And so, summer is celebrated! And there’s a lot of time to celebrate as the days are really long. In the north of the country, the sun never sets at all during the peak of summer. On the eve before Midsummer, Swedes pick flowers and make wreaths. On the day of Midsummer, the menu includes different kinds of pickled herring and boiled new potatoes with sour cream, red onion and fresh dill. These traditional foods may be followed by ribs or grilled fish, along with the first strawberries of the summer, which are topped with cream. Of course, some liquid refreshment is called for, and that is usually a cold beer and spiced schnapps.
In many countries, life and longevity rate a celebration. In Mexico], it’s the dearly departed who get feted during Day of the Dead in early November, and it’s among the country’s biggest celebration. Celebrants set up altars for their loved ones who have died, complete with favourite things to lure the souls back. But it’s the foods gracing the altars, including fruits, candy skulls, chunks of candied pumpkin and baked agave, that brings the souls around. Pan de Muertos, or Day of the Dead bread, dominates the food items. It contains lots of yeast and eggs and bakers form it into shapes like skulls, corpses and cross bones. It sounds gruesome, but once you sprinkle it with sugar or confetti, or dip it in Mexican hot chocolate, it’s downright festive. These treats may be enjoyed during a picnic at the graveyard, where mariachi bands might stroll by while decorative candles burn. Rather than being a morbid time, Day of the Dead celebrations are full of fondness and appreciation for the departed.
The Lunar New Year (or Tet Ngyuen Dan) in Vietnam falls each year on the first new moon after Jan. 20, and is by far the biggest celebration in the country. The festivities typically last a week, similar to the holiday season in the West, and focus on honouring ancestors, parents, grandparents, teachers and others. The Vietnamese believe that the mood and actions of this period set the tone for the coming year, so arguments fade and harmony ensues. Traditional foods include soup made with abalone or shark’s fin. Cutting the fish open has significance as the redder the flesh, the more luck will come to the family. Many Asian cultures believe red wards off evil. While traveling to visit family and friends during the Lunar New Year, the Vietnamese bring gifts of food, including banana cakes made with coconut milk, which could be considered the equivalent of fruitcakes in the United States. Other favourite Tet foods include mustard green pickle, sweet rice cakes and fresh bacon.