A Mini-Tour of Christmas/Holiday Feasts and Traditions

I’m putting of discussing the “maybe we really have a [thin] post-Brexit trade deal” till we can get a look in the box, but border backups were raising worries about Christmas provisions, even before France put a 48 hour hold on shipments to France. Some of the participants in an NC Brexit brain trust e-mail chain didn’t realize, at least until they’d seen it on Twitter, that seafood is an important part of the holiday meal for many in France.

Vlade suggested that readers describe on Christmas/holiday feast traditions in their part of the world, both food and customs, since they vary so widely. As he explained:

Europe it actually differs quite a bit even within short distances (say even in Czech Republic there are some small differences in traditional food, and more so between Czechs and Slovaks, never mind Poles, Germans, Austrians… )

In a lot of the world, gifts are delivered by an obese jolly old man with propensity for drink. But for some reason, in CZ/Slovakia/Poland and Hungary, it’s the baby Jesus. Which for some weird reason is also the person in some Lat Am countries – but not in Spain, as I understand.
– in some countries (I’d say most non-AngloSaxon, but could be wrong), the gifts are given on Xmas eve, because in Jewish tradition (which Christians took for theirs) the day begins with evening (cf book of Genesis).
– while fish is the traditional Czech/Slovak/Polish Christmas Eve dinner*), for Christmas day and Boxing day it’s usually duck or goose, eaten with cabbage and dumplings.

*) fish having been reclassified as not-meat by the Church in the medieval times, and IIRC Christmas Eve was the last day of the pre-Christmas fast. Christmas Eve was a strict fasting _day_. I write day, because the fast lasted until the observation of the first star (no idea what they did on cloudy days). This is still the custom in the CZ, even though the country is one of the least-religious on earth, and I remember how as kids (in a socialist Czechoslovakia, so even less religious than now, and with neither of my parents religious) we were told to fast as to see a Golden Pigglet (you got to induce the kids to fast somehow I guess). Which we of course never did, as the lure of Xmas sweets **) was just too much.

**) there’s a tradition of Christmas sweets, which are supposed to be home-made, and there should be at least seven different types (some say 12). Looks like (not an exhaustive collection, as the types vary widely by region):

My mother, who is half Hungarian, half Swedish, may have been picking up on that tradition with her Christmas cookies. She made a ridiculously large variety: rum-soaked nut balls, shaped cookies made with lots of egg yolk, cookies with a raisin filling (rolling out the dough, cutting out the tops and bottoms, placing the raisin puree on the bottom and then putting on the tops and crimping the sides was quite a process), springles, a no-name cookie with a shortbready dough, rolled into balls and coated with in finely minced walnuts, then pressed in the center to make an indentation big enough to hold some jam (usually strawberry), and some bar cookies. I never thought of her as working towards a number, but there would usually be seven or more, which she’d make place in cookie tins and give an assortment to friends (not to worry, we kids got our fill too).

I knew from a good Polish friend that the Poles normally have a whole fish, typically carp, as the centerpiece of their Christmas feast.

So back to France, where some cooks are having to make late-in-game substitutions for their usual fare:

David and Colonel Smithers confirmed the popularity of seafood. From David:

Yes, fish is a big thing on the traditional menu for Christmas Eve, which is the main meal of the holiday. We’re not talking Cod though – more the luxury end of the market with fruits de mer, lobster, crab and so one. Salmon from Scotland is also popular, which might be a problem at the moment.

From Colonel Smithers:

Italy and the Iberian peninsula, too. Mainly cod and tuna. Finns, too. Mainly salmon.

Duck and wild boar are popular in France and its former colony, Isle de France.

Some British Ilse inhabitants are promoting native seafood as holiday luxe:

We Americans tend to assume that British holiday fare is like ours, when goose and duck are so much better than domesticated turkey that I can’t imagine that turkey has gotten much of a following across the pond. The side dishes are similar to the ones at Thanksgiving: stuffing (hooray!) potatoes (white mashed, sweet, sweet in a casserole…), cranberry relish, and if you are lucky and get a break from death by starches, a salad or Brussel sprouts or perhaps green beans. Americans also eat ham for Christmas; not sure what cooks substitute for stuffing with that.

In the old days, big birds (turkey and goose, my mother converted my father from turkey to goose or duck for holidays) came with the innards, the gizzard, heart and liver, which I assume most people would mince in with their stuffings. My mother would cook them in the roaster and they were my favorites (I also adore but seldom get to eat sweetbreads, most of all lamb sweetbreads). You never see them now. I bet they go into pet food.

We did many stuffings over the years: bread, cornbread, oyster, chestnut. Chestnut was my favorite, but that was back in the day where you’d have to roast and pell them yourself, and even with my help, my mother deemed that to be Too Much Work (I love marron glacé too). My father insisted on small white boiled onions, well buttered, and mashed rutabaga as Yankee staples.

Even though I was never in the UK in the winter, I am pretty sure they don’t have our horrible Christmas cake (one company has dominated the trade for decades and their offering makes for a better doorstop than food). It’s too bad plum pudding and suet pudding never got a following over here. Is trifle eaten at the holidays?

Our desserts were also substantial. We’d always have three pies: an apple pie (my mother’s is great; the men at my father’s hunting camp insisted he bring it every time he came), a pumpkin pie, and a mince pie, with vanilla ice cream for those who wanted some along side. Mince pie was my father again invoking his Yankee heritage. My mother tried many variations, including traditional ones with venison (shot by my father). Even though he liked all versions, he was the only one who was keen about them.

I never understood candy canes and fortunately was not subjected to them overmuch. We would get Christmas stockings with the stereotypical “stocking stuffer” small inexpensive gifts and candy. For many years, my mother got a delicious ribbon candy which she’d give us only at Christmas.

There are too many traditions around the world to give a proper tour, but let me highlight a couple that differ a fair bit from the Anglo version. Despite having been populated by English and Irish, the Australians have different favorites, due in no small measure to Christmas falling in their summer. The one Christmas I had there was with vegetarians, so I didn’t get a classic meal. But I understand prawns, oysters, cold ham and turkey, and potato bake are popular. For sweets, pavlova, Christmas cake (not our American mass produced version) and trifle are staples.

And in Japan…Kentucky Fried Chicken is number one! The Japanese also have a Christmas cake, but it’s not the Anglo dried fruit type but a strawberry shortcake or a buche de Noel as well as Japanese sweets called wagashi. Wagashi isn’t terribly sweet and are usually made of moichi or red bean paste (I very much like anko) and can be made into holiday shapes like Santas. Christmas buffets at hotels, featuring Japanese and Western dishes, are also popular:

Photo credit: http://www.hoteluniversalport.jp/en/news/

Please tell us what the locals do in your part of the world. And I hope you are able to have a festive meal later today or tomorrow.

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  1. vlade

    Yves, what you describe as the sweets your mother used to do is very much in line with the tradition coming from the Hungarian side. Now if you’d say she also did sauerkraut soup on Xmas day, it’d be all there :).

  2. Synoia

    My Childhood Christmas meals:

    Turkey with Stuffing, Potatoes, peas, and Gravy,
    Christmas Pudding, with alcoholic white sauce.

    Always too much food for a single sitting.

    Why this: I do not know.

  3. John A

    The Christmas smörgåsbord in Sweden is a sight to behold. Pickled and cured herring and salmon, sausages, pork ribs, pates, ham, salads, pickled vegetables, gurkins, special bread, cheeses etc. Plus rice pudding, fruit, gingerbread biscuits, the list is almost endless.

    1. Jeff N

      my mom puts on an American version for us,
      potato sausage (homemade)
      Bund-Ost cheese
      limpa bread
      among other things

  4. SE

    My father is Danish/American (grew up in Danish midwestern community speaking Danish with Danish parents/grandparents) and always insisted presents were opened on Christmas Eve in Denmark. I cannot verify this is true in real Denmark, but that is what he leaned from parents/grandparents.

    1. Irrational

      The Danes have their main meal on the 24th in the evening.
      Traditionally , you start with warm “risengrød”, probably best described as rice pudding, served with butter and cinnamon sugar. A whole almond will be hidden in one of the portions and whoever finds the almond gets a present (a “mandelgave”).
      This would make sure that people would eat as much as possible of the risengrød and less of the main course, which is traditionally duck or goose with assorted veggies.
      We then proceed – to the consternation and horror of my American husband’s family – to dance around (more like walk around) a freshly cut (i.e. non-plastic) Christmas tree with live candles singing a mix of religious and non-religious carols.
      Note that the tree is bought shortly before, moved into the house on the 23rd and put in a holder with water. Also, the candles are specially made high-quality ones. Never had a fire in nearly 5 decades.
      Only thereafter are presents opened usually around midnight.
      Thus we are now done with the entire thing here in the Europe CET timezone, while those of you in the US have the best ahead of you, so enjoy!
      Christmas Day, traditional lunch is like the Swedish smörgåsbord and dinner in the evening is normally leftovers plus the remainder of the risengrød is turned into a cold dessert, “ris a l’amande”, by mixing in whipped cream, sliced almonds and topping with a berry sauce.
      We have departed somewhat from this in our decades of being ex-pats, borrowing the best of what we have seen along the way ;-)

  5. Kris

    Ours was a combination of American and British and quite elaborate. Ham or turkey with stuffing, Petit pois in creamed pearl onion sauce, Waldorf salad, yams with marshmallow topping, Riesling wine brought back from Germany, and desserts: sweet pancakes floating in a thick date sauce, date roll, traditional Trifle, mincemeat pie, and cookies: Coconut macaroons, Mexican wedding cakes, and shortbread from the P&G gift basket. Ribbon candy and bowls of nuts to be shelled also made their seasonal appearance, and Christmas morning started with homemade eggnog. Stuffing took hours to make the day before, carefully drying out bread slices in batches and then cutting off the crusts.

  6. Icecube12

    I have lived in Iceland for the past 8+ years and spent most Christmases in that time with my husband’s family. The festivities really start on the 23rd, when stores are open until midnight for people to do last-minute shopping, and many just walk the streets and take in the sights. There is also a tradition, originating in the more rural, fishing-based region I live in, to eat fermented skate fish on the 23rd with family and friends. It has a heavy smell of ammonia that permeates throughout the house when it is boiled inside (I thought I had been transported to another planet when I first walked into one of these feasts). Some people just love it and eat plates and plates of it, while others can’t stand it. What I like on this day is that it is really relaxed and everybody is excited–both to eat the stinking skate fish and for the upcoming holiday.

    The main event is on the 24th. The morning and early afternoon can be pretty relaxing at home. A lot of people visit the graveyards in the afternoon to bring candles to family members’ graves. They also decorate graves from the beginning of advent with Christmas lights, so the graveyards are all lit up at this time of year. Then families eat dinner together exactly at 6pm for the main Christmas celebration. This is usually just the immediate family, while extended families might gather together on the 25th or 26th for coffee or dinner. Pretty much all Icelanders will eat with family members though (my husband and I don’t have kids yet so his sister’s family has us over). The main meal is usually a baked ham, or roast lamb, or perhaps turkey or ptarmigan. It depends on the family. The dessert is often a pudding with an almond hidden inside, and whoever gets the almond receives a special gift. After dinner, the gifts are opened, and after that sometimes other family members come over and everyone will play a game or something.

    Then on the 25th and 26th, some people apparently gather for more dinners if they have big families (a lot of big and/or blended families here), while others (like me) pretty much do nothing all day. People often read books they received as gifts. On the 25th it is traditional to eat smoked lamb; others may have fish or some other meat.

    Icelanders are also pretty much in love with Christmas. Every single house or apartment is decorated if someone is living in it. I have yet to meet someone who is cynical about the holiday here. It’s a few weeks of color and brightness in an otherwise very dark (only a few hours of light a day) time. This year has been changed a lot by covid, but we can still gather up to 10 people and infection numbers are relatively low, so small family gatherings are still taking place. I’m nervous about it though.

    Wishing everyone who celebrates it a very happy Christmas. And a happy day to all!

    1. Carla

      Wonderful to hear about the Icelandic Christmas, Icecube12 — thank you for this gift!

      My daughter once spent Christmas in Sweden, and was fascinated by the many varieties of pickled and smoked herring that were served. Fortunately, she has an adventurous palate and had a marvelous time.

  7. DJG

    My extended family observes the Italian-American custom of the Dinner of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, although not this year, which will have a Zoom call instead. The custom seems to derive from Neapolitan traditions and is related to what Yves Smith mentions about Christmas Eve being a fast day (as well as abstinence from meat). One of my nieces now has Christmas Eve–and she makes a terrific dish of fresh cod in “scarce sauce”–a kind of thin tomato sauce–which is an Italian classic.

    One of my sisters, in particular, has carried on my mother’s tradition of major production of cookies during December. My sister’s specialties include rum balls, Italian lemon knots, Italian-style spice cookies, and several other recipes that she rotates. Dispersed as we are this year, I am still going to receive a tin of rum balls, chocolate chip (tollhouse) cookies, and Nutella cookies. My nephew sent me some of his famous eggnog, made from scratch–so it is extraordinarily rich.

    Christmas day has been sponsored by the same sister. (My holiday is Thanksgiving, suspended this year.) She makes both a turkey and a ham. I’m not a fan of turkey at all, so the ham is indeed a relief.

    Best wishes to all. May you have many cookies this season!

  8. Lou Mannheim

    Clam dip. Philly cream cheese, minced clams, onion and seasoning. I think my grandmother got the recipe from Good Housekeeping in the 40s.

    The stuffing needs to have sausage meat, and it needs to be roasted until crispy or else Christmas is ruined.

  9. The Rev Kev

    Amen to Pavlova, Christmas cake and trifle as the wife has made all three. Plus baked ham and creamy backed potatoes & onions, chicken and god knows what else and it is goodbye diet and hello 100 kgs. The family are coming around tomorrow and Boxing day we go to the out-laws for another Christmas dinner with the grand-kids with us. I wish everyone here a very merry Christmas and may all have a great day-


  10. Jay

    In China the Christmas eve gift / food is apples. This comes from the word for Christmas eve and apple sharing a sound, even though its not the same character. I dont think other Asian countries do this. Also, this gets mixed in with the idea of apples being a gift for teachers, so some teachers may be inundated with apples on Christmas eve. This is a secular thing. I’m not sure what Christians there do differently for the holiday.

  11. JEHR

    This article brings to mind an article I just read from the BBC : The twitter thread alone describing the many different ornaments that are put on trees from the many immigrants that have come to Canada makes me proud to see so many different people adapting to our culture with as simple a thing as an ornament put on a tree.

  12. BillS

    Here in northern Italy (Veneto), fish is popular in the southern part near the sea. Up north, in the mountainous area, meat and dumplings with cheese and and mushrooms figure prominently. The big meal is on Christmas day in the early afternoon. The food is almost always based on locally produced specialities. Much wine is consumed, but no one ever gets drunk. (Being obnoxiously drunk is severely frowned upon.)

    Covid has affected Italians deeply because these Christmas is meant to be a very social event, celebrated with extended families and/or friends.

  13. petal

    Interesting to learn about carp for Poland. My mother’s family is from that ever-fluctuating northeast border area. My great grandparents spoke Polish, Russian, and English. If they didn’t want the kids to understand what they were talking about, they’d switch into Russian. Fish was never a thing for us. We’d go to my grandmother’s on Christmas day(we went to Mass at night on Christmas Eve). She would make traditional American foods like turkey, mashed potatoes, etc, along with kielbasa, homemade pierogies, sauerkraut, stuff like that so you could have both. I miss that. Now as an adult, whenever I smell kielbasa, I automatically think “holiday!” Before tucking in, a toast of sparkling beverage was made and we all said “Na Zdrowie!” She also made a lot of different cookies.

  14. fresno dan

    My mom would bake (well, heat up) the Turkey tv dinners in the oven, and would supplement it with the tin can of cranberry, slicing off a thin portion from the gelatinous cylinder. To this day, I cannot eat actual homemade cranberry relishes and sauces, thinking to myself, “what is this bizarre concoction?”
    And then she would ask, aren’t I good cook – not ironically and I doubt not grammatically correct either.
    I know it sounds horrible. But having been an adult for many years, and risen to middle class conventions if not income, and having attended many events where mass quantities of various foodstuffs are presented for Veblen effect, and stuffing oneself competitively, in a country where it is a capitalist and civic duty, is OK. But this year I had my Swanson tv dinner – I am not diametrically opposed to opulence (as a youth, Swanson was beyond our means, so we had Morton TV dinners – I am sooo glad I have advanced to where I can afford the luxurious Swanson) and I thoroughly enjoyed having it in front of the TV – not least for the grand delight of all the people I didn’t have to encounter.
    Happy holidays to all, particularly Festivus. As an experienced curmudgeon, ALWAYS insist on being last when the recounting of the grievances start, elsewise you will be cajoled into saying an abbreviated list.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      We ate TV dinners sometime in my childhood. My grandmother (who lived with us) was big on them. She even got a TV tray so she could eat them properly in front of the TV.

      And I have to confess to also liking the tinned cranberry sauce, or more accurately, cranberry jelly.

    2. Jeff N

      TV dinners in their original aluminum trays and baked in the oven for like 45 minutes… so good when I was a kid

    3. eg

      TV dinners were a treat, if not precisely an extravagance in my young childhood, and we had the TV trays as well, though they were mostly used for home made fare.

      And it was early adulthood before I ever encountered cranberry sauce that wasn’t of the canned jelly variety, which I still love.

    4. HotFlash

      TV dinners in our house were mostly for times mom and dad went out to dinner, which was rarely. My brother always opted for the standard turkey or beef, but I discovered that they made a Mexican dinner with strange, exotic, and very tasty foods — Spanish rice, refried beans, tamales!

      We did have TV trays, but they mostly lived behind dad’s reading chair in the livingroom. They only came out when we were very sick (and no TV, “If you’re well enough to watch TV, you are well enough to go to school.”) and once a year, Palm Sunday, when we were allowed to eat in front of the TV (usu beans on toast) and watch The Wizard of Oz.

      Christmas was the standard midwestern menu, the fun part was cooking with my aunts seeing all my cousins by the dozens at the Grandmas’.

  15. expr

    My mother used to make a large number of many types of cookies as you describe. I do not remember the meal but pumpkin and mince (filling from can or jar?) pies. I really liked mince pie.

    Lately the people I celebrate with are of Czech descent and fish on Christmas eve is required. The used to serve dried salted cod(?) which you had to pound into fairly fine bits and mix with spices and ?. Eating it was supposed to be good luck but I never managed to. Lately, they are into seven kinds of fishes. I wonder if someone picked that up in Italy.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You can get good prepared mince. My mother would sometimes use prepared stuff straight up and sometimes experiment with it. Pumpkin is a lot of work. She did pumpkin from scratch and concluded it was no better than the tinned kind.

    2. Wukchumni

      I’m allergic to fish, so they’re lost on me, but Carp is the traditional xmas dish in Prague, and scales fanciers relate that it might be the crappiest fish to eat of all, but there’ll you’ll have it, dinner swimming in the bath after bringing it home alive from the fishmonger, if only temporarily.

  16. divadab

    Christmas eve was spent with my mother’s side – usually a meal of ham and for some strange reason tomato aspic, which nobody loved but nonetheless my mother always made. Whiskey sours for the adults (the smell of rye whiskey still reminds me of Christmas) and my great uncle Jim breaking out in Gaelic song once sufficiently soused. Sufficiently-aged shortbread (my Mom always made shortbread at least six weeks before Christmas and hid them away to age) and bowls of roast almonds as a special treat. We used to play board games with cousins – usually Stock Ticker for some reason which my cousin Jamie always won.

    Christmas day was with my father’s side – who arrived after the opening of presents and the making of stuffing for the turkey. Every stocking had a tangerine in the toe. No alcohol consumed on Christmas day! Turkey, stuffing both baked and from inside the bird, brussels sprouts, mashed “turnip” (rutabaga) mixed with potatoes (I highly recommend this as the potatoes absorb the acidity of the turnip), sometimes peas in milk, gravy, roast potatoes, dessert of meringues with icecream and home-made chocolate sauce. Christmas crackers after dinner and before dessert and everyone expected to wear their silly paper hat, blow their noisemakers, and recite the silly jokes. More games for the kids – bumper pool in the rec room was popular for a long time.

    Thanks for this post I am really missing Christmas festivities this year.

    My oldest cousin had to sit at the children’s table until he was quite old because he would have made 13 at the adult table and that was NOT acceptable to my great aunts.

  17. voteforno6

    We always opened presents on Christmas Eve. I preferred that, as it made going to bed that night much easier. Our food was standard American fare, although we would also have pfeffernusse cookies (made from an old family recipe), and sometimes strudels (not the flaky pastry kind).

  18. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves for posting and Vlad for the wonderful suggestion. NC feels like a community. It keeps us sane, safe and informed, so posts like this are most welcome in addition to the BAU.

    In Mauritius, extended families celebrate Christmas and new year the evening before, “reveillon” in French, and often outside as it’s summer. Midnight is followed by fireworks, a tradition brought by Chinese immigrants in the (late) 18th and 19th centuries. (If one is driving home from a relative’s house, it’s wise to let the smoke clear.) Immediate family celebrate (quietly) on Christmas day. Christmas mornings are spent at mass and laying flowers at family graves, which may involve a few cemeteries. Christmas celebrations are not limited to Christians / Roman Catholics, a bit more than a third of the island.

    We tend to eat duck, venison and wild boar (sanglier / cochon marron). Sometimes, fish. Some amuses bouches based on bread or Indian and Chinese snacks precede lunch.

    At home in Buckinghamshire, the last potatoes, carrots and apples from this year’s harvest are about to be consumed. The garden is ready for planting next spring.

    In the meantime, I wish all of you a merry Christmas and happy, healthy and prosperous new year. Joyeux Noel, bonne annee et joyeuses fetes de fin d’annee.

    Last, but not least, a huge thank you to Yves, Jerri, Lambert and Jules for hosting this community.

  19. IsabelPS

    In Portugal, the tradition would be a fast and meager diner on the 24th (usually boiled codfish, or octopus in certain parts of the country, with potatoes and cabbages, then midnight mass and, in richer households, a richer meal when coming back home, swapping presents, etc. The following day, a meat lunch (already turkey in my time). Now the diner is a lot less “catholic” and Chrismas trees and Santa Claus have been taking over, but nativity scenes are still a must. In traditional families like mine, it’s the Baby Jesus that delivers presents. More recently, dishes became more elaborate and many people still have codfish but in a more bourgeois style. What I find quite interesting is that the Christmas desserts are still mostly the traditional ones, that almost any household could have, even the poorest ones: rabanadas (pain perdu), sonhos (fried “choux”) and, generally speaking, fried things covered with sugar and cinamoon that don’t require anything but eggs, flour, sugar, sometimes pumpkin or chickpeas and, of course, the oil to fry. I have always liked this democratic side of the Christmas festivities, that is disappearing but very slowly…

    Of course, it’s an extended family sort of thing. The Government didn’t really have the courage to break the tradition, it just gave lots of advice to people in these pandemic times: please, please, please, don’t sit around the table many hours with grandma in tens or twenties. Lots of people will try hard to keep to the closer family. But it’s very painful.

  20. sgr2

    We were extremely fortunate this year to have a local entrepreneur offering Finnish-style home-cooked meals delivered to the doorstep. The typical Finnish Jouluateria (Christmas meal) includes:

    Graavilohi (cold cured salmon)
    Sienisalaatti (mushroom salad)
    Porkkanalaatikko (baked carrot dish)
    Lanttulaatikko (baked rutabaga dish)
    Punajuurilaatikko (baked beet dish)
    Perunalaatikko (we substituted organic American-style mashed potatoes instead)
    Kinkkua (more like pork roast, not like Honeybaked ham)
    Karjalanriisipirakka (traditional eastern Finland small baked pie with rice)
    Juustokakkupala (cheese cake)

    All festivities (decorating the tree, the big meal, and opening of gifts) takes place on Christmas Eve. The “big” event of the day is the reading of “The Declaration of Christmas Peace,” which has continued (almost uninterruptedly) since the 1300s from the city of Turku. The declaration in its current form has been read on the balcony of the Brinkkala building since 1903. This year, because of the Covid-19, the public was not allowed to attend the reading but, as always, it was broadcast live.

    Another tradition of note is that Jouluputkki (Santa Claus) — a role that is often assumed by an older relative, or someone is hired (hopefully a sober someone), who comes to the door (and even inside) to greet the children and distribute the gifts on Christmas Eve, after the meal.

  21. Alex Cox

    Here in Oregon we usually have Xmas paella. But this year the dear wife is making a fish pie, preceded by mussels.

    Bon appetit!

    1. Antagonist Muscles

      I frequently cook a paella for Thanksgiving because I certainly don’t insist on holiday traditions. Nobody in my family has any connection with Spain. I just like paella so much that I cook it several times a year and not for any special occasion. It’s only a matter of time that the day I cook paella lands on Christmas.

      There are numerous recipes for paella. I usually prefer mussels, clams, and chorizo sausage. Make sure you use the right rice too – Valencia or Bomba.

  22. PlutoniumKun

    I grew up with a very generic Christmas dinner – turkey, ham, brussels sprouts and spuds. My father was very disapproving when my sister, in a fit of Europeanness, added parsnips with a dusting of parmesan one year (“Cheese! On a turnip! Whatever next?”). The one thing that stood out was that my father always insisted that the turkey came from my uncle, who always kept half a dozen on the farm, raised for Christmas (this was before anyone talked about organic or free range) – both my parents thought the idea of eating a frozen turkey from the supermarket was a horror, as was the idea of a ham wrapped in plastic.

    I was thinking when I saw this post of what flavour or smell I associate with Christmas. I realised that its not the scents or flavours of Christmas day, but a month earlier, when my mother would make the cake and puddings. My mother would always use Guinness Foreign Export (a much stronger variation on standard Guinness), as the base for her baking, it adds depth and pungency – traditional Irish puddings are extremely dense and aromatic, quite a shock to the tastebuds and stomachs of those not used to them. She would add a little sugar to a small glass of the Guinness and give it to me as a treat. As a child, that was always the start of Christmas excitement to me, and I still love the intense smell of the dried fruits with stout, but its the flavour of that strong sweetened Foreign Extra Guinness that really makes me think of Christmas, and I always have a bottle of it on Christmas Eve in memory of my mother and her cooking.

    1. Lex

      My grandmother (the Irish branch of the family, her mother was an ‘O’Connor’) was a similar kind of baker, but I doubt they could’ve afforded Guinness, even if they could find it to purchase. So a common ingredient in her baking was strong coffee, molasses, or dark Karo syrup, trying to achieve the same depth of flavor.

      She also always carried coffee-flavored hard candies in the pocket of her apron and her favorite ice cream was… coffee! Does any country love the taste of coffee so much as the Irish?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Oh yes, definitely. Ireland has maybe the worst food culture anywhere I can think of, but if there is something that tickles the Irish palette, its deep, dense rich flavours, so anything with lots of coffee and cinnamon and fat makes us very happy. I live close to the setting for the James Joyce story The Dead, with its rich evocation of an Edwardian Irish Christmas dinner (the film shows them drinking wine, although in the book its mostly ales and stout).

  23. Susan the other

    It was always ham for us. And considerable amounts of bourbon. Every Christmas my mother would deign to use my grandmother’s recipe. My father ordered a naturally cured ham from somewhere in North Carolina. My mother baked it up to perfection by slicing a criss-cross pattern through the skin and fat, sticking each diamond with a clove and basting it the entire time with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and brown sugar. To die for. I’m too lazy to do all that. My bad. Merry Newton’s Birthday everyone. And many happy leftovers.

  24. Carla

    My parents were musicians (dad an orchestra violinist and mother a pianist). On Christmas Eve every year, we had a big party with my parents’ closest friends from the orchestra and their children. Chamber music was played, and Christmas carols were sung with expert piano accompaniment. There was lots of party food, but I don’t remember what it was. The next morning we kids were up early examining the packages under the tree. After a long session of gift-opening and oooh-ing and aahhing, with Mom carefully recording who had given what to whom in a composition book she kept just for that purpose, there was all the clean-up of boxes, wrappings and ribbons. Then somehow, in the mid- to late-afternoon, my mother produced a full Christmas dinner: turkey and stuffing with all the sides, capped off with homemade pumpkin, apple and mincemeat pies.

    Only when I had married and hosted my first Christmas feast did it occur to me to wonder how on earth Mom did it, after pulling off a big party the very night before. Every year! Amazing…

  25. Lex

    Probably a ham, or possibly a turkey, and if a turkey then also stuffing and gravy. Later dad would take over fixing the entree and it was prime rib every year with a creamy horseradish sauce. The entertainment included a wrestling match over the ribs. Candied yams that only mom would eat, until I married and then her son-in-law joined in while the other three members of family looked on in barely disguised disgust. Devil eggs, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, rolls, some kind of steamed veggies… the infamous green bean casserole enjoyed (?) by many families and even some our extended family was never served at our table; I tasted it once for the first time in my twenties. There were always green and black olives, and celery stuffed with pimento cheese. Pies were for Thanksgiving (pumpkin and pecan), instead my mother would have spent the week before Christmas turning out cakes, cookies, and candies in a huge variety. The appetizer was usually something called ‘a Swedish salmon mold’ with crackers. The beverage was something like cranberry juice or sparkling cider; later it was wine.

    The meal that will be served here tonight will be much simpler. Prime rib with horseradish sauce, baked light sweet potatoes with fixin’s, steamed broccoli and champagne. No dessert but there’s always something sweet available if there’s any room left.

    Both of our families were of poor German/Irish/Scottish descent who immigrated to the southern U.S. and slowly moved west with each new generation. Our branches ended up in Washington state; we grew up thirty miles apart and met in junior college. We’ve been together ever since.

  26. Dave_in_Austin

    2 1/2 generations deep in Irish Catholic Pawtucket, RI. Born and raised in the triple deckers of St Mary’s and Sacred Heart parishes and eventually moved to a small cape cod in St. Theresa’s (Italians!). We never felt poor. Or unsafe. Why mention parishes? Until the 1960s most “houses for sale” adds in the Pawtucket Times listed the parish. The parishes overlapped- on one street there were (and still are) three Catholic churches within 100 yards- Italian; Irish; French Canadian.

    I hate the cold; I left as soon as I could; I’m 76 and most of my friends are gone. I wish I were there right now…

    And for our esteemed leader… a child of the 50s; a half Swedish half Hungarian (1945 or 1956?) mother and a Yankee father who hunted. A mom who landed in Alabama… a very private person at Christmas. We all have our stories. Merry Christmas, stay safe… and thank you. (feel free to edit out this last paragraph if you would prefer)

    Traditional fare- Turkey; my unmarried aunt (in 30 years she went from secretary to the head of benefits at the local electric utility) made the apple and mince pies. Her “boyfriend”, an embalmer at the local protestant funeral home who drank a bit always gave me a whiskey… only one. My aunt never married and never left home. In 1938 there were five persons there; by New Years Eve in 1945, when she met the boyfriend at age 42, she and her mom were there alone. At her wake I learned about the NYC lawyer from Stone and Webster who wanted to marry her when she was 22. When I worked at the utility during the summer one of the VPs used to look at me… a bit too long. He’d been in love with her. She turned him down. I doubt that his son (who of course I went to school with) ever knew. I think she probably died a virgin… Yves; thank for the memories.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Re Hungarian, neither 45 nor 56. My Hungarian ancestors allegedly came over in the American Revolution! Her father was the black sheep in a well off family. His only brother fought in WWI in Mexico under Pershing and became pro-German as a result. My grandfather never spoke to him again. I understand he became the CEO of a mid-sized chemical company.

      Her father went to college on a sports scholarship (football) and was expelled for boxing professionally during the summer. Became a pro baseball player, minor leagues but was signed by the Boston Red Sox. Cleated his last season before he was to join the Sox, which ended his baseball career. He’d learned enough engineering in college to become the manager of amusement parks, which held up well during the Depression.

      My Swedish grandmother was technically second generation American, but her father emigrated and then brought his wife and children over when he became established. She was born here but some of her older sibs were born in Sweden. He was a contractor in Cleveland, building houses.

  27. Rtah100

    I am about to put the Turkey and its giblets in the bottom oven of the Aga overnight. It will be kicked upstairs tomorrow to brown two hours before festivities, while we open presents to the popping of corks!, swapped for roast potatoes with an hour to go and left to rest while the gravy gets made on the hotplate. There will be a ham on the distaff side (Irish wife insists on a turkey and a ham and the incomprehensible bread sauce), swede in the Devon style on my side (cooked until falling apart, mashed, laden with cream and salt and white pepper), roasted carrots and parsnips (eugh, taste if metal but nobody else seens to notice), various stuffings and pigs-in-blankets, possibly a green vegetable or two. There will then be a homemade Christmas pudding (last years), made with Guinness (good idea about the export strength, I will try that – I have heard stories of brickies felled by it unawares when drinking in Belgium!) and grated carrot and proper suet, among other goodies. And then, heaving ourselves into the drawing room once the Queens’ speech is safely over, tea and and absolutely massive Christmas cake. There will NOT be trifle (gah, custard, lubricious horror, food of Chthulu) but I am tempted to whip up a pavlova, Rev.

    I just iced the cake tonight; it is the recipe i used to make with my grandmother as a child, from the Hamlyn all-colour cookbook. Our copy with her notes has disappeared but I found it venerated online. It requires raisins, sultanas and currants, black treacle, muscovado sugar etc. We would make it in the giddy rush of autumn rituals: Hallowe’en (carving a swede with a spoon into a jackolantern gave me wrists for judo – pumpkins were unknown in 70’s Devon), Bonfire night (fireworks and jacket potatoes and auntie Hetty’s fatless chocolate sponge with their own cream at their farm), the village carnival (young farmers’ raunchy tableaux on floats pulled by tractors, majorettes and silver bands, torchlit processions) and Stir-up Sunday when we made the cake and pudding.

    Nanny would be proud because not only did I make my own marzipan, I even had to grind the almonds hiding in the back of the cupboard because we have had a supermarket delivery disaster and half our order was eaten by the app (and not Brexit!).

    It’s lovely to read about so many traditions. Keep them alive in your hearts and stomachs! Merry Christmas everybody!

  28. Petter

    Here in Norway we celebrate Christmas Eve (and we did when we lived in the States too, thanks to my father and mother’s mastery of our region’s traditional Christmas meal – continued on after my father’s death in 1969.) The traditional Norwegian meal varies regionally; for us it’s pork rib, Christmas sausages, specialty homemade meatballs, (medistekaker), potatoes, sweet sauerkraut, lingonberries, and to drink water, soda, beer, wine and Akvavit. Desert is rice pudding with a topping.
    Gifts are distributed Christmas Eve and after the distribution of gifts, we gather round around the Christmas tree, hold hands and sing traditional Christmas songs and a one spesial to Norway – Now We Go Round a Juniper Bush: The video is group students singing it in Missouri – it captures the spirit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loocs5jJCKw&t=9s

  29. eg

    Canadian of Irish heritage here, with a family that combined rural New Brunswick with the “big city” of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

    Turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potato, cranberry sauce, green beans and corn. But the emphasis was on the plethora of desserts: shortbreads, ginger bread men, peanut butter chocolate balls, date and nut cookies, ginger snaps, Eagle Brand squares, apple pie, date squares, mince tarts, sultana cake, and the centre-piece — Christmas cake (a fruitcake that may more accurately be described as a pudding, it was so moist) with “hard sauce.”

  30. Offtrail

    Shortbread was and is always baked around Christmas, according to the recipe that my great-great grandmother brought over from Lanarkshire. Late in life I noticed that the recipe is identical to the one in Joy of Cooking.

  31. caucus99percenter

    Here in a working-class household in former East Germany …with coffee on Christmas Eve: Dresden Stollen (Christmas fruit-nut cake), “Kalter Hund” (a no-bake cake: layers of cookies/biscuits coated with chocolate), Baumkuchen (“Tree cake,” made by successively baking thin layers of batter on a core, so that a cross-section shows concentric rings of cake crust like the wood grain of a log).

    Christmas Day: goose, dumplings, red cabbage.

  32. Pat

    We had an orange in the stocking, and as we got older that was joined by a pomegranate. That was the only unique Christmas tradition food wise. Christmas dinner looked pretty much like Thanksgiving dinner when we were young.

    Later there was ham along with the turkey when my mother started holding a sort of orphans Christmas dinner. Surprisingly I never encountered either the sweet potato marshmallow casserole or the fried onion green bean casserole until I ended up at others orphan Christmas meals as an adult.

    Merry Christmas, Yves. I hope you and your mother have a lovely and joyous holiday.

    Thank you so much for all you do. I know I am grateful for the sanity you help bring these days when history and common sense are so often forsaken. You, and your merry band here at Naked Capitalism truly shine a light in the darkness.

  33. MLa

    Yves, What a nice post. I love hearing your thoughts.

    Personally, I’m a Claxton fruitcake fan, I like it with eggnog (lots of nutmeg) but I was raised by Southerners so that might be the reason.

    Once, I made fruitcake from a 100 year old recipe (there were no unnatural colors involved, just dried fruit and nuts) I had to let it sit well wrapped, in the bottom of the fridge for 3 months. After it was baked I doused it with dark rum, refrigerated it and forgot about it. When I unwrapped it and tasted it after the 3 month aging process, the result was spectacular. Very rich. So I do know what fruitcake can be.

    Anyway other than that I don’t have any great Christmas food stories.

    I often ask other people what they serve on Christmas because I really don’t love the repeat of Thanksgiving. So far, I haven’t heard anything really inspiring: prime rib, lasagna, turkey (most common) and ham (with a side of cheesy scalloped potatoes or something like it).

  34. Shiloh1

    About 55 years ago the Marshall Field store on State Street in Chicago was the place to be. The window displays were worth the trip even before you went inside.

  35. Phil in KC

    For us Gottscheers the potica ( or povitica) is a Christmas staple. This is a bread of many thin layers with a sweet cinnamon-y flavor, sometimes with nuts. My grandmother made these. Delicious when warmed with a spritz of butter, or with ice cream, but preferred mine unadorned. The Croatian and Slovenian women in Kansas City, Kansas still make these and are a prize to be sought at holiday times.

    And of course a glazed ham.

  36. HotFlash

    For those of you who have had not enough seasonal carols, or too many, may I suggest the PDQ Bach Three Carols. Music here, lyrics for sing-along are here.

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