Christmas is a time of traditions seemingly cast in stone and some of them dating from the stone age.
We all indulge in unusual customs that people from elsewhere may mock or jeer. In Sweden, for instance, watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve is a communal pastime, in the UK we eat sprouts, in Spain they have a defecating nativity figure. And there’s lots more where they came from.
Food is important at times of communal festivity and the choice of food can sometimes be thought-provoking. And of course the traditions attached to that food can sometimes be even more interesting that the grub itself …
UK – Mince Pies
These I’m a big fan of but didn’t realise until researching this post the superstitions associated with them. Originally there was real meat in a mince pie and the idea of sweetening the meat idea was brought back from the Middle East by returning crusaders. Not surprising as meat dishes sweetened with icing sugar are still a part Middle Eastern cooking. There are some great traditions that we forget about when pigging out on them at Christmas time (or maybe that’s just me):
- Superstition number 1: If you eat one mince pie a day between Christmas and 6th January you’ll have happiness for the next 12 months. This is an excellent excuse to eat mince pies.
- Superstition 2: Always eat them in silence…(?)
- Superstition number 3: Stir the mixture clockwise because obviously stirring it anticlockwise is as unlucky as tripping over a black cat.
- Superstition number 4: The cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves represent the gifts bought by the three kings.
- More a fact than a superstition number 5: Eating mince pies and puddings and generally behaving in a festive way was banned by king of the killjoys, Oliver Cromwell.
Japan – KFC
Even though Japan isn’t a Christian country they love their celebrations and Christmas is one they’ve taken on board: ‘Christmas chicken’ is their Christmas dinner of choice.
Partly because of a lack of ovens big enough to cook turkeys in and partly because of devious marketing efforts by Kentucky Fried Chicken, their branches on Christmas Eve are chock full of revellers and there are often queues out the door.
Chile – Ponche a la romana
An eggnog-style concoction, this consists of champagne and pineapple ice cream. Basically a more expensive ice cream soda and served during the summer months as well as being a Christmas and New Year’s Eve treat. The only reason I’ve added it in here is that I wouldn’t mind trying it.
Romania – Piftie
While a traditional Romanian main course at Christmas consists of standard fare such as pork chops and baked gammon, their appetisers are a tad heart attack-inducing. The piftie is a prime example.
Pigs feet are boiled to make the piftie as there’s a lot of gelatin in the foot. Then garlic and pig offal (head and feet) and sometimes vegetables are added to the liquid in moulds. What you’re left with is a scrummy gelatiny mass of yuck. (Sorry – I’ve a thing about gelatin – can’t eat panna cotta because of it).
Iceland – Fermented Skate
Thorláksmessa (Mass of St Thorlac) falls on 23rd December and it is on this day that the whole of Reykjavík is alive with the smell of ammonia.
Eating fermented skate was traditional in the Western part of the island but has become common throughout Iceland these days. Cooking it with smoked lamb gets rid of some of the smell and it’s served with sheep fat and potatoes to counteract the taste a bit …
The tradition of eating this tasty meal came about as a result of Catholic non-eat-meating in the period coming up to Christmas. And as some parts of the skate are poisonous, fermenting the fish for a while is said to make it less dangerous.
Slovakia – Bread Throwing
A Slovakian Christmas Eve meal is a solemn occasion full of symbolism and superstition. As in many Eastern European Catholic countries, a 12 course vegetarian banquet is eaten which harks back to the 12 apostles.
One course in this Slovakian feast is a tart soup as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery (in the exodus from Egypt bible story); poppy seeds are included in lots of dishes as they’re believed to bring luck; and walnuts are thrown in the corner for the same reason.
My favourite, however, is the custom of soaking local breads or a wheat based dessert called kutia in water, forming it into little balls and chucking it at the ceiling. The more that sticks, the better their crop will be next year. That must take a bit of cleaning up afterwards and presumably it’s only done by people with crops.
Netherlands – Gourmetten
Gourmet at Christmas isn’t the posh food that we would normally associate with it. The host provides meat and vegetables which the guests cook in little frying pans, stove set or grill (the ‘gourmet set’) on the table between them. Pancakes are also made at the table and fruit is provided for dessert.
Greece – Christopsomo
Christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is a sweet, buttery bread made carefully and with only the best ingredients. It’s decorated with a Byzantine cross or with symbols representing the cook’s family life, like animals or a family crest. The cross is flavoured with aniseed and the ends of it encircle walnuts. A variation is the Zakinthos version with dried fruits.
Worldwide – Candy canes
The tradition of selling candy canes and decorating trees with them is popular throughout Europe and common in the US. It never featured much in the cornucopia of UK sweet treats but it seems to be appearing more often here as well.
The custom is said to have come about in 1670 when a German choirmaster created these particularly shaped sweets to keep children quiet during long church services. He had the bright idea of asking the local confectioner to shape the candy like a shepherd’s crook to remind the kids of the nativity story.