Christmas Feasts Around the World
Christmas is all about love, peace and giving. It’s also about family. And, of course, it’s about food – lots of it. Food that piles up in various rooms around the house and that must, under no circumstances, be consumed before the big day itself (although, in our opinion, a Christmas Eve cheeseboard and accompanying red wine or two while last-minute wrapping is absolutely allowed). Post-it notes proclaiming that this cake or that box of chocolate is to be saved for Christmas, and mouthwatering morsels temptingly sitting in wait for 25th December, so that wrappers can finally be ripped off and the indulgence can begin; a Christmas Eve spent preparing veggies and baking mince pies that make the whole house smell of festive fun.
For many, feeding loved ones is an act of pure love. For others, the chance to eat until you’re feeling sick is a once a year opportunity that can’t be missed. Whatever your reason for enjoying the festive feast, have you ever stopped to wonder what the story is behind it? Or, what others around the world fill their Christmas table with – it’s not all turkey and stuffing, you know…
The traditional, 21st-century version of Christmas dinner in the UK consists of a turkey, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, a variety of other vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pigs in blankets – mini chipolatas wrapped in streaky bacon. Cover the whole lot in gravy and tuck in. Turkey might be swapped out for beef, gammon, or goose if you’re feeling fancy, but generally speaking, Christmas dinner is a big old Sunday roast made extra special thanks to crackers, paper hats and festive music. It’s followed by Christmas pudding – often covered in brandy which is then set alight to ward off evil spirits – and, more often than not, there will be a few other dessert choices on offer such as trifle, mince pies, a yule log, or a load of chocolate.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
Christmas dinner became popular in medieval times, but turkey wasn’t served – it wasn’t even heard of then. Instead, boar was the main ingredient of Christmas dinner, and this evolved into goose by the time we reached the 16th century. It was, however, only for the middle and poorer classes. The upper classes dined on things like swan and peacock! Turkey finally made an appearance in the middle of the 16th century after the birds were imported from Spain. They weren’t particularly well liked, however, until Henry VIII chose to have one for Christmas dinner. After that, they had a surge of popularity, although the goose still won out – at least until the Victorian era. This may have had something to do with Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. Near the end of the story, Scrooge sends a boy to buy the best turkey hanging in the poulterer’s window: “not the little prize turkey: the big one”, and it seems his leagues of loyal fans followed suit. As a nation, we’ve never really looked back.
In Puerto Rico, Christmas dinner is a long-winded affair; and that’s just the cooking part of it. The main meat served at the Puerto Rican festive feast is the lechon, also known as a roast suckling pig. It’s juicy, moist and delicious, but in order to get it that way, it takes two people turning it on a spit from the early hours of the morning (around 2am) so that it’s ready for lunch time. Whoever those sleep-deprived chefs are however, they won’t be alone – the Christmas meal is so important that many friends and relatives come and have a party around the spit, drinking something called coquito, which is a type of eggnog made from condensed milk and rum, and is traditionally drunk from a coconut shell.
Although not technically a Christian country, Japan is known for its consumerism, and Christmas is no different. Turkey was a tricky thing to find back in the 1970s, so expats who were keen to have as traditional a Christmas as they could even if they were away from home had to improvise. If turkey wasn’t on the menu, then chicken would have to do. And why slave for hours over a hot stove when Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was open on Christmas Day, selling a ‘bargain bucket’ that could easily feed an entire family? KFC noticed the trend and created the Christmas Chicken Bucket in 1974. The trend has never diminished, and many Japanese families – natives as well as expats – enjoy some finger lickin’ chicken with a glass of champagne at lunchtime on 25th December. Afterwards, there is a tendency towards cake.
Many countries in Eastern Europe hold a similar kind of Christmas feast. They enjoy it on Christmas Eve, since Christmas Day is busy with church services so there just isn’t time to create the spectacular 12 dish meal that Christmas calls for in countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. The 12 dishes are meant to represent the 12 apostles, and superstition says that if you skip any of them, you will die within the year. While not entirely cheery, at least the food does sound tasty, so skipping a course isn’t going to be something you’d particularly want to do anyway. The food doesn’t include any meat, eggs or milk because of the rules of the Nativity Fast that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Church practices, so instead you will find mushroom soup, cabbage rolls, herrings, pierogi (steamed dumplings with a variety of fillings), carp and poppy seed cake amongst others.
Greenland Christmas tradition states that the men of the household must serve the women their special feast, although it doesn’t state that the men must cook it, which begs many questions including ‘what if it’s a same sex household?’. Specifics aside, what is it that they are serving? To start with, it’s mattak, a whale-skin filled with whale blubber. It’s quite hard to eat and incredibly chewy, but it’s tradition and, much like us with our sprouts, it just wouldn’t be Christmas in Greenland without it. Next comes kiviak – baby auks (a type of bird, like a puffin) are wrapped in seal skin and buried at the end of summer, then, when Christmas comes around, they are dug up and the fermented bird is served.
In Sweden, the Christmas feast is called the ‘julbord’ or ‘Christmas table’. And it is just that – a table overladen with delicious bits and pieces for everyone to tuck into. Christmas dinner is not such a formal affair in Sweden as elsewhere in the world, and guests aren’t required to sit around the table if they prefer not to. Grab a plate, fill it with boiled ham, ‘dopp i grytan’ (literally translated as ‘dipping in the kettle’, hunks of bread are dipped in the gravy made from the ham centrepiece), boiled whitefish, syrup covered cabbage and a variety of smoked and cured meats. To drink, it’s the traditional glögg, which is an excellent word for mulled wine. Dessert is very much a sugary, spicy kind of dish. It’s all about baked goods, and there are a lot of them, which will be cooking slowly from early on Christmas Eve right through the night, enveloping each home in a warming cinnamon and nutmeg fragrance – the smell of Christmas. The favourites in Sweden are fruktkaka – a light fruit cake; mandelmusslor – gooseberry jam topped with whipped cream in a thin almond pastry shell; kokosbollar – chocolate truffles rolled in oats and coconut; and risgrynsgrot – a very thick, very rich, very creamy rice pudding.
Instead of the UK’s beloved turkey and roast potatoes, in Portugal you are more likely to find cod and boiled potatoes. But, this first course is not the star of the show – it’s all about the puddings, and there are plenty of them. The showstopper is the bolo rei (king cake). It’s named after the three wise men and it’s glorious and impressive, so the name certainly suits, even if it wasn’t meant for the magi. It’s a fluffy white sponge that is covered in crystallised fruit and nuts. A dash of cinnamon sauce and/or chilacayote (a type of squash) jam and the cake is completed. But, not for long, as it’ll be demolished once it’s put on the table. Dotted around there will also be finhoses, which are made from spiced dough topped with icing sugar, and formigos, which are balls of nuts and raisins stuck together with honey.
They do things differently in Norway…at least, it seems rather differently when compared to the good roast turkey, goose, or nice piece of beef. ‘Smalahove’ is a whole steamed sheep’s head, and for many Norwegians it’s the dish of the day. Ideally, you should eat the ears and eyes first (they’re the fattiest parts), and then the surrounding meaty bits. The brain is boiled separately. Not everyone likes smalahove, and if that’s the case then the alternative is pinnekjøtt, which is lamb’s ribs cooked on an open fire made of birch branches. Because that’s quite a lot of trouble to go to however, it isn’t quite as popular as it once was, and for the majority of households in Norway, the main feature of their Christmas dinner, which they eat on Christmas Eve, is ribbe, or roast pork belly. The smalahove, pinnekjøtt, or ribbe is served with boiled potatoes, prunes, pickled cabbage, lingonberry sauce and sausages. If you still have room, dessert is a dish called multekrem, which is cloudberries (a native Scandinavian fruit) mixed with cream and sugar.
As might be expected in a country such as Mexico, Christmas dinner is a spicy affair. The main meal happens on Christmas Eve, and usually consists of stews made from beef or fish with plenty of chilli thrown in. On the side you’ll find spicy tamales – a sort of pastry made of corn, which are stuffed with pork or beef and can be dipped into the stew. Because these little delicacies are fiddly and take a while to make, they tend to be saved for important occasions such as Christmas. And because they are cooked in large batches when they are created, they will be eaten long after Christmas itself is over…much like the leftover turkey that we eat for days in the UK. To finish, it’s a sweet fried fritter known as a buñuelo.
Italy, as with many mainly Catholic countries, celebrates its Christmas feast on Christmas Eve, leaving Christmas Day free to attend mass. The Italian meal has its own name – The Feast of the Seven Fishes – and it’s huge. Traditionally seven courses (hence the name), in many households this can swell to 12 or more, as every member of the family wants to cook their own dish and add their own personality to proceedings. The basis of the meal is that there must be at least seven different types of fish, and those fish must be cooked in entirely different ways. From boiling and roasting to poaching and eating raw with a homemade salsa, there are no hard and fast rules for what needs to be done. Favourite fish across the country, and ones that are often included, are cod and calamari. Everything else is open to interpretation. The good news is these seven or so dishes aren’t eaten all at once – the meal is spread out over the entire afternoon and evening, making it a lot easier to digest!