Traditions vary from country to country, region to region, and family to family, and some of the most tightly held traditions are those centered around holidays. There are diﬀerent traditions around holidays celebrated by diﬀerent religions, nations and cultures. Christmas is one of those holidays, and food plays a big part in most Christmas celebrations.
At Oldways, our staﬀ’s family traditions are all over the page. For some the most important meal is Christmas Eve, and for others it is Christmas breakfast or Christmas lunch or dinner, or even a combination of some or all of them. Some of our holiday staples are Melissa Clark’s potatoes, Ana Sortun’s Brussels sprouts, and Ina Garten’s rainbow carrots, Julia Child’s watercress soup, Roasted Butternut Squash with Spelt, Arugula and Farro Salad with Pomegranate Seeds, and Pain d’Epices. While we have fun describing what we love most, we also enjoy imagining the diﬀerent holiday tables and traditions of places around the world. Here’s a roundup of a few holiday heritage tables we’d like to visit someday.
Denmark. This photo of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens during Christmastime makes us think of our former ﬁnance director, Birthe Creutz, a native of Denmark. She and her husband Bob kept many of her Danish traditions, and Christmas was no exception. On their menu: Open face sandwiches, roast duck, and braised red cabbage.
But what does the most famous chef in Denmark — Rene Redzepi of one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma — cook for Christmas dinner? And wouldn’t you love to have a ﬁrst hand experience? It actually happened to Wall Street Journal writer Gabriella Gershenson when she wrote to Rene about the dinner reservation she’d made at Noma, and ended up with an invitation to Christmas dinner at his home. She was expecting Rene’s revolutionary New Nordic cuisine to cover the table but discovered that Christmas dinner for Rene and his family was full of classic Danish traditions. On Rene’s menu: Rye crisps, raw oysters, crème fraîche, pickled herring, cured salmon, and bowls of lumpﬁsh roe; followed by roast duck, potatoes, and braised red cabbage; and rice pudding with almonds, topped by cherry and/or caramel sauces for dessert. Birthe and Bob would feel right at home!
United Kingdom. When we think of the UK, we dream of an English Christmas breakfast with Jamie Oliver. His smoked salmon and scrambled egg dish looks heavenly and would deliver sustenance for the long day ahead! Jamie says, “Put a plate of smoked salmon and eggs in front of anyone for breakfast and they’ll thank you for it.” Try making Jamie’s staple breakfast yourself with the recipe here.
France. It’s also fun to imagine visiting Patricia Wells or have had the luck to dine with Julia Child in Provence, France. The classic Provencal Christmas dessert is actually Les Treize Desserts de Noël, or 13 Desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper (which was actually during Easter time, not Christmas!). The desserts are served one at a time and each guest is expected to take a small bite of each dessert. If this tickles your fancy, here are the most typical desserts for Les Treize Desserts de Noël.
Italy. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a southern Italian tradition that has taken hold in the United States. According to a New York Times article by Melissa Clark, “The ﬁsh part comes from the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, while the number may refer to the seven sacraments. Or it could be the Seven Hills of Rome. No one is sure, but the tradition has stuck fast.” For more details, check out the video of Mary Ann Esposito of Ciao Italia (television and books) celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes with the late former Mayor of Boston, Tom Menino.
Panettone is another Italian tradition that has migrated to the US in a big way. This dome-shaped cake, originally from Milan, is a sweet bread with candied fruit and raisins, and is packaged in a beautiful box for sale at Christmas. This tradition has spread not just to the US, but also to the UK, Canada, Australia, and many countries in South America. While there is no question of its Milanese roots, there are many legends about the origin of Panettone. One favorite comes from Tomie dePaola’s book, Tony’s Bread. We won’t spoil the story, but just a clue: the bread of Tony (or pan di Tonio in Italian) sounds a lot like Panettone! There’s no recipe for Panettone — you should buy it. Look for the beautifully packaged Panettone in stores or mail order!
Mexico and Central America. South of the Border in Mexico, it would be great to join Rick Bayless when takes his staﬀ on the annual learning trip. We would learn how to make tamales (cornmeal dumplings) for Christmas, as well as bacalao (dried salted codﬁsh), and Rosca de Reyes (a sweet bread usually eaten on King’s Day).
Tamales are also traditional in a number of Central American and South American countries. Making tamales is a complicated process, and they are often made by several family members together — mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, perhaps a brother or two. Daniel Hoyer’s book, Tamales, says they are thought to have originated in Mesoamerica as early as 5000 to 8000 BC. Cooking teacher Sylvia Casares assumes that “brilliant women were behind the invention,” and says, “Some smart, enterprising women ﬁgured out you could make these packages that could be taken out to the ﬁelds.”
We have had the pleasure of making tamales with our friend in Costa Rica, Hannia Campos, who will be one of our guides for the Oldways Culinaria in Costa Rica, and we can testify that it is a long, but rewarding process!
Tamales also feature in another favorite children’s Christmas books, Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. Here’s how it begins:
“Christmas Eve started out so perfectly for Maria. Snow had fallen and the streets glittered. Maria’s favorite cousins were coming over and she got to help make the tamales for Christmas dinner. It was almost too good to be true when her mother left the kitchen for a moment and Maria got to try on her beautiful diamond ring …”
Switzerland. To be sure, Swiss Christmas traditions are hearty, and they certainly wouldn’t be complete without chocolate and cheese. Gruyere AOP is one of our favorites, whether it’s featured with vegetables or potatoes, on a cheese board. Chocolate can be a chocolate fondue, or as an ingredient in any number of dessert treats. We were lucky enough to travel to Switzerland in September 2023 for a cheese-focused Culinaria.
No matter the location — East, West, North, or South — the ultimate holiday heritage is the beauty of being together with family and friends, and of course carrying on the food traditions that are such an important part of what makes the holidays so wonderful, all around the world.
Happy cooking! Happy eating! Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! Joyeux Noël! Glædelig Jul! Buon Natale! Feliz Natal! We’d love to learn about other traditions, so please share your holiday traditions with us below.
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