December and January are rich with holiday celebrations throughout the world. Many of these are tied historically to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year and a time of fear of the darkness and end of the harvest. Food and eating are usually a part of these celebrations, and often represent generosity, community, and light. Christmas is a major holiday, and the Christmas season includes numerous celebrations and rituals with variations throughout the world. We recognize here all the holidays celebrated this time of year and emphasize the food connections between them all as well as ways in which we use foodways traditions to make those holidays meaningful to us.
Food and eating are usually a part of these celebrations. Some foods are officially symbolic (for example, candy canes for Christmas), while others become associated with the holiday through common usage. Eating together, sharing food, and giving gifts of food are frequent activities, representing the ideas of generosity and good will that are promoted this time of year. These activities also connect us to the season, to religion or spirituality, and to each other.
Christmas—the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ--is the basis for numerous other celebrations, most of which involve food. The season is marked by foods associated with the coming birth, but they also reflect older traditions and beliefs surrounding the Solstice. Christmas has become a cultural tradition, so that many people celebrate it regardless of religious affiliation, usually emphasizing the "spirit of Christmas"—generosity.
The Christmas season includes a number of holidays and informal traditions, including Christmas cookies and breads, gifts of food, Christmas caroling, and parties.
The Solstice has been incorporated into other holidays, but it is formally celebrated by groups identifying themselves as Wiccans and Pagans. Celebrations emphasize nature, the natural cycle and light, oftentimes drawing upon older European symbols and rituals. The fir tree, for example, was an ancient Germanic symbol of the continuity of life through the winter season. It was transformed later into the Christmas tree, but is also used as a celebration of nature.
(December 22, 2011)
There are many family traditions for Christmas Eve, and these vary according to ethnicity, religion, region, and ages and interests of family members. In the US, families with small children oftentimes have a special bedtime ritual involving setting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus—and carrots for his reindeer. Churches usually hold special services with candlelight and music—midnight mass is a Catholic tradition. Eating usually comes after the service, and some cultures have specific meals or foods associated with this day.
Italian Christmas Eve Dinner is a formal celebration featuring an odd number of fish dishes.
CONNECT: WHAT ARE YOUR CHRISTMAS EVE FOOD TRADITIONS?
There is wide variation in the celebration of Christmas Day itself. Many families have traditions surrounding Santa Claus. Children wake in the morning to their stockings full and gifts under the tree left by Santa. Food is often a tradition with the stockings--an orange in the toe; candy canes; chocolate Santas, and candies.
Breakfast or Brunch traditions
Christmas Dinner is oftentimes a formal meal with the menu reflecting ethnic traditions. In the US, it is common to repeat the Thanksgiving dinner menu or to vary it with British items, such as goose instead of turkey (possibly reflecting the popularity of Dicken’s Christmas Carol in shaping expectations for the celebration of the day).
CONNECT: WHAT ARE YOUR CHRISTMAS DAY FOOD TRADITIONS?
Jewish Festival of Lights
Dec. 20-Dec. 28
Hanukkah is celebrated with foods fried in oil. Latkes are classic. Chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper are given to children. It is celebrated for 7 days, acknowledging the seven days that the lamp in the temple miraculously burned without replenishment of oil. Although Chanukka is a relatively minor holiday within Judaism, it has become more public and significant in the US because of its proximity to Christmas. Giving gifts and special meals for each day have become popular.
A week-long holiday created in 1966 to celebrate African-American heritage. It begins Dec. 26 and continues with the celebration of a different themes or principals each day for seven days. Harvest foods are emphasized along with African cuisines and African-American foodways traditions.
"Festival of Lights"
This festival is one of the most significant holidays for cultures based on Indian heritage. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil (symbolized by light) and includes extensive sharing of food and sweets. It occurs between mid-October and mid-December, and also marks a new financial year in India.
Dec. 26th/Boxing Day/St. Stephen's Day An Irish St. Stephen's Day
St. Stephen's day is celebrated the day after Christmas is a holiday in the western Christian church (particularly in British and Irish culture) and on December 27th by the eastern church. Is is a national holiday in Ireland where tradition says that the Robin (representing the New Year) kills the wren (representing the old year) on this day. Historically, "wren boys" would go house to house collecting money to purchase drinks and food for a party. Now it is a day for visiting friends, "boxing up" things no longer needed in order to donate them to charity, and eating left-overs from Christmas dinner.
Occurring on December 13th, this holiday is traditionally observed by Scandinavian and northern European countries. In Scandinavian cultures, St. Lucy's Day is celebrated with a young girl dressed in white and wearing a crown of candles leading a procession of Christmas carolers and bearing gifts of lights, coffee, bread, and sweets. Santa Lucia Buns, made with saffron, are a tradition in Sweden, while Norway offers similar lussekatt buns.
December 6th is the day St. Nicolas is celebrated. St. Nicolas was a 4th century Greek saint who is known for his generosity and kindness. He had a reputation for secretly giving gifts, such as coins, in people's shoes who put them out for him. Children set their shoes outside their room the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes during the night or in the morning and puts money, sweet treats, and candy in their shoes. This became the model for Santa Clause. The Dutch translated his name to Sinterklaas, which later became Santa Clause)
Stutenkerl is a tradition in German speaking countries. It is a pastry made of Stuten, sweet leavened dough, in the form of a man. It is often created with raisins for eyes and a clay pipe. (See photo)
Three Kings Day/Epiphany/Old Christmas/12th Night Three Kings Day Cake
January 6th is the twelfth day after Christmas. It is celebrated in many Catholic cultures with special cakes, gatherings, and gifts. It is traditionally considered the day the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem at the stable to see the Christ Child, hence the King's Day cakes on this day. These cakes frequently contain fortune telling trinkets inside them.
The day was also historically celebrated in the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the US as "old Christmas." This was a day of music, dancing, and joyful celebration, while Dec. 25 was a somber and religious holiday.
Join our Winter Holidays Discussion Group on CONNECT
December and January are rich with holiday celebrations throughout the world. Many of these are tied historically to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
Many also have distinctive food traditions that connect us to the season, to religion or spirituality, and to each other. Some of these traditions are symbolic of religious beliefs; many represent the return of light and the beginning of a new cycle. Also, many of these foods are public and communal.
This is oftentimes a season of gift-giving, including homemade foods.
We emphasize here the ways in which these food traditions connect us all to larger forces beyond ourselves—nature, the cycle of the sun, spiritual beliefs, groups of people.
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