Whether you see the holidays as a joyous period, filled with cozy nights by a warm fire and spending quality time with family, or as a horrid, freezing vortex of chaos, complete with every large company in the world blatantly co-opting the holiday spirit by slapping Christmas colors and the word “SALE” on their products, you have to agree that the holidays are certainly a prominent component of American culture. However, those of us who are less well-travelled, or whose family doesn’t observe any particular culturally-rooted traditions, may not have a clue as to how people in other parts of the world celebrate during this time of year. This certainly applied to me; I have never spent a Christmas outside of the country, and the way my family celebrates the holidays is pretty generically American. Here are five different traditional holiday foods from vastly different parts of the world.
King's day in Mexico
On January 6th, Mexico and a plethora of other Spanish-speaking countries celebrate Dia de Reyes, or King’s Day. Around this time, a traditional dessert, Rosca de Reyes (which directly translates to “King’s Wreath”), can be found in stores all across the country. The pastry itself is fairly simple; it is a sweet bread shaped like a wreath, typically with orange zest baked in and candied fruit over top. The most memorable part of this dish, however, is the fact that it has a tiny baby figurine hidden somewhere within the bread, and, traditionally, when the cake is cut and served, whoever receives the slice with the figurine in it must be the host for the next holiday, Dia de la Candelaria, on February 2nd.
Christmas in France
Although culturally somewhat similar to America, many European countries have their own unique traditions for celebrating the holidays, and France is no exception. In France, the most crucial part of a Christmas dinner is dessert, and no Christmas dessert spread would be complete without a Buche de Noel, or Christmas yule log. The inspiration for this dish dates all the way to medieval times, when many families would place a large log from a fruit tree in their hearth, and then sprinkle it with salt, wine, or other ingredients to ensure a successful harvest for the next year. As homes became more modern and the hearth in the center of the house became less common, the log tradition moved from the fire-pit to the dinner table in the form of this dessert. Part of what makes this such a widespread tradition is how easy it is to make one—simply make a jelly roll cake and some buttercream, roll it all up, add some fun toppings, and voila! Although they can be found in abundance in pastry shops during the holiday season, for many who observe this tradition, there is nothing like a Buche de Noel made together with your family on Christmas morning.
new year's Day in Japan
Christmas is not such a big deal in Japan (most native Japanese are either Buddhist or Shinto, or observe some modern amalgamation of both), but the most important holiday is the one that comes five days later—New Year's Day, or Oshougatsu. A tradition that is observed during this time by households all around the country is that of eating Toshikoshi Soba, which is supposed to bring good fortune for the coming year. The dish in its most simplest form is buckwheat noodles in some sort of meat/vegetable broth, but a variety of toppings may be added to it depending on one’s personal tastes.
Christmas in Egypt
Although the primary religion in Egypt is Islam, over 10% of the population is Christian, and this group of people has a very unique way of celebrating this holiday. Christmas is actually celebrated on January 7th, and the month leading up to the big day consists of an extended fast, where no animal products are consumed, ending in spectacular fashion with a large feast on Christmas day. One key component of this feast is Fattah, which is essentially meat combined with rice and placed over a layer of bread. The dish is not unique to Christmas, and is eaten to celebrate any number of occasions, from religious holidays, to weddings, to the birth of a new baby, but it is a staple in Christmas feasts for Christians all around the country.
Hanukkah in Israel
Although Hanukkah is only a minor holiday in the Jewish faith--its prominence has been largely inflated due to its close proximity to Christmas--there are still many unique festivities and foods associated with it. One such food typically eaten to celebrate Hanukkah in Israel is Sufganiyot, which is a type of jelly-filled donut. The most traditional version is round, coated in powdered sugar, and filled with strawberry jam, but in modern times there are countless different variations sold by bakeries all over the country. The act of frying the donuts in oil is meant to pay homage to the origins of the holiday itself: a temple in Jerusalem over two-thousand years ago was able to miraculously keep their menorah lit for eight days, despite only having enough oil for just one day. Other fried foods are also very common around this time of year in Israel for the same symbolic reasons.
The holidays are a unique time of year no matter where you are on the globe, and, although it is impossible to list every single country and it’s traditions in one article, I hope this extremely condensed list showcases just how differently each culture celebrates this time of year, and maybe even gives you some new ideas for spicing up your food life and adding some fun cultural variety during the winter months.