Ethnic Food Traditions of The Holiday Season

BY SHELLY GARCIA

While the celebration of holidays is certainly a practice which can be found to exist throughout the world, the exact manner in which cultures choose to celebrate said special occassions differs, and what is common practice in one nation may in fact be unheard of in a neighboring culture. Here in the United States, we assume that our “Thanksgiving-Turkey/Christmas-Pie” traditions are normal, but on the contrary, these foods are different, even odd, to those of other cultures. Despite the differences which may exist between the holiday traditions of the various nations of the world, the fact remains that these  traditional meals play a fundamental role in establishing the season as one that is looked to with such great anticipation.

The typical holdiay cuisine of Russians, Ukrainians, and eastern Polish communities, for example, is characterized by a single-bowl porridge called Kutya, which, shared between the members of a family, is meant to symbolize hope and immortality. Spoonfuls of Kutya are on occassion thrown up toward the ceiling during the course of a meal, and it is believed that if the porridge sticks, the family will be blessed with happiness, peace and success during the subsequent year. As a Christmas Eve tradition in Mexico, families attend midnight mass, followed by a feast consisting of tamales, fish, suckling pig and the traditional drink Atole, an event which serves merely as the conclusion of a larger nine-day-long series of ceremonies, and stands in sharp contrast to the traditions of inhabitants of New Zealand, where Christmas dinner typically consists of a picnic eaten on the beach.

Similar in nature to the aforementioned traditions of Mexican communities, the French also come home for their Christmas Eve dinner, a meal referred to as Réveillon, after attending midnight mass. This meal symbolizes a new awakening to the birth of Christ. Instead of partaking in a homemade pie, like we Americans usually would, the French bake a traditional dessert called Bûche de Noël, which, roughly translated, means Yule Log. Families in Greece prepare a cake in the shape of a dome, like the Orthodox churches, with a coin baked into it, and tradition holds that whoever gets the slice of cake with the coin in it gets special luck in the upcoming year. Italians also participate in the enjoyment of savory desserts, but with their own homemade Panettones; Christmas breads made with candied fruit, nuts and raisins  and made to resemble a chef’s hat. Christmas Eve dinner in Italy is usually kept meatless, a tradition where they substitute chicken or turkey for fish stew, or zuppa di pesce.

            Hanukkah, the 8-day Festival of Light celebrated by the Jewish during roughly the same period as Christmas, features its own unique meals. For the Jewish, the miracle of the lamp oil that burned in the temple for eight days is symbolized by oily foods, namely, Latkes, a type of fried potato pancake. Similarly, the Israeli tradition is to eat Sufganiyot, or fried jelly doughnuts.

The recognition and commemoration of the New Year is also an important holiday celebrated in many countires. For many cultures, the New Year’s celebration is a holiday associated with aspirations of good fortune during the coming year. The Japanese prefer to consume red snapper as part of their celebrations, as the color red is recognized as a symbol of good luck in their country, whereas Vietnamese families mark the lunar New Year with their signature abalone soup. In Madrid, Spain, citizens count down the seconds to the New Year, as is practiced in the United States, but in the final moments of the concluding year, fill their mouths with grapes.

Although these customs may vary drastically, the fundamental principles which guide these holiday traditions are identical, as are the sense of spirit and community which they serve to establish. Regardless of the specifics of the festivities being observed, the common factors of family, fellowship, and of course, food, remain a constant.