‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the kitchen, pozole was stirring, bubbling and glistening. Broth was perfectly seasoned with care, in hopes that all guests soon would be there.
So the story goes of Christmas Eve dinner in my family, more or less. Growing up, I’ve known most Mexican American friends and family to stick to a few staples around the holidays: Tamales, menudo, or pozole. My mother (who cooks the main dish and hosts Christmas Eve) has always stuck to the latter. While some of my aunts do bring over their best tamales — chicken in green chili, pork in red chili, beans, or sweet corn tamales — pozole on Christmas Eve for us is like turkey on Thanksgiving, just much more flavorful.
After so many years of cooking the pozole, my mom scoffs at the idea of a recipe or measurements, and she rejects my sister’s and my offers to help. Mom has it down to a science. Starting early in the morning, she makes the chili base for the broth while the pork and hominy cook together in salted water with garlic in a 50 quart cauldron. The aroma of the pozole permeates the air, instantly conjuring feelings about Christmas. She could make it midsummer (which she has) and it still feels like Christmas, each and every time.
A whole 10 hours later, when the pozole is finally complete and our 30 or so guests are ready to eat, it’s topped with cabbage and radishes, and the result is fantastic. Even when I was a picky eater as a kid, I couldn’t resist the soup with hominy mixture. Two years ago my mother suggested we try a different main course, and let’s just say that idea was quickly vetoed.
So, with the holiday season in full gear, I decided to look at holiday traditions around the world, many of which are as nostalgic and ingrained as yours and mine.
Many have heard of a Yule Log, as it’s known here in the United States, even if not knowing exactly what it is. A French dessert popular around Christmas time, buche de noel is a log-shaped treat made of chocolate ganache with a chocolate cake in the center, rolled around a whipped cream icing. It dates back to the Iron Age in Europe when people would gather to celebrate the winter solstice in December. To cleanse the air of the previous year, families would burn logs decorated with pinecones, holly, or ivy, and the ashes were then preserved to ward off evil and protect homes. The Yule Log tradition continued through the 1600s, and in the 19th century Parisian bakers popularized the dessert, thus becoming a classic French tradition.
It wouldn’t be the holiday season in England without mince pies. This iconic pastry enjoyed as dessert has significantly evolved from its medieval origins, which contained beef. Today, they are sweet and filled with dried fruits and spices called “mincemeat.” They are so popular the UK sells over 300 million each year.
While there are different versions of the events that inspired the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the traditions are widely similar, revolving around the lighting of a nine-branch menorah. The fried foods eaten during the holiday are a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah. Jelly donuts known as sufganiyot in Hebrew, and latkes are particularly popular. Latkes are made of grated potatoes mixed with flour and shortening, and are fried crisp in olive oil. In the 1920s the Israeli Labor Federation declared jelly donuts the official food of Hanukkah and are also made with different fillings like cream or chocolate ganache.
In Ethiopia, doro wat is one of the most popular dishes served on holidays year-round and is widely known as the country’s national dish. It is a spicy chicken stew that typically includes whole, hard boiled eggs and is packed with flavor. It is served with injera — another staple Ethiopian dish. Injera is a sourdough risen flatbread with a spongy texture, and is used to dip into the doro wat. Both are served during Christmas Time, as well as Easter and other holidays.
Perhaps the most unique of all traditions is Japan’s Christmas ritual of families going out and purchasing KFC for dinner. That’s right; our beloved Kentucky Fried Chicken became a staple on the holiday and filled a void. Japan only recently acknowledged Christmas and did not celebrate in the traditional sense, but now, an estimated 3 million people a year line up for their bucket of chicken thanks to a genius marketing campaign in the 1970s. They called it “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii”, or Kentucky for Christmas, showing images of families crowded around the red and white buckets. There are even special family-sized boxes that include chicken, cake and wine.
Kwanzaa was given its name from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” The first Kwanzaa was celebrated in 1966 as a way of empowering and uniting the African-American community after the Watts riots. The holiday is more cultural than religious, and it is centered around seven principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). There is no specific dish to celebrate kwanzaa, and as it became more mainstream the focus shifted to foods of African diaspora. However, tables are laid with some symbolic fruits and vegetables like yams, squash, sweet potatoes and muhindi, ears of corn.
China (Chinese New Year)
Chinese New Year is widely recognized around the world and signals its arrival with scarlet decor adorning restaurants, homes, and shops. The color red is significant in Chinese culture as it is associated with wealth and good fortune. Across regions of China, dishes enjoyed on and around the holiday differ and range from dumplings in Northern China to nian gao, or rice cakes, in the South. All essential dishes are symbolic and are steeped in tradition. Some of these include: a whole fish, or yu (the character for prosperity), sweet rice balls (tang yuan) with the roundness symbolizing complete harmony and unity within a family, turnip cake which is served steam or fried, and long noodles, which represent longevity.
More than the food itself, holiday dishes feel like home, no matter what that means. Food brings families and friends together, and on holidays tastes extra special while enjoyed in the spirit of the season.