Food occupies an important place in every country’s holiday festivities. From stuffing recipes passed down through generations to favorite holiday cookies, it’s all part of the tradition of the holiday season. Without even knowing why, your family may observe several customs that began centuries ago. Perhaps you’ll recognize some.
The very act of eating too much at Christmas dinner constitutes a genuinely traditional element. In North Germany, for example, Christmas Eve is known as “Full Belly Eve” or “Fat Belly Eve.” This parallels popular beliefs of former times. “Anyone who eats much on Christmas Eve will be well-off throughout the year.” Or “Anyone who gets up hungry from the Christmas table will suffer hunger for the next year.
This was based on more than superstition. In the old days, Christmas brought to an end a period of strict fasting for Advent. The great dependence on farming patterns made this period particularly suitable for celebrations as late autumn was usually a time of abundance. Spring was always a time of shortages.
Many customs we follow today came from or are shared by the British Commonwealth and West Germany. For example, the popularity of cider this time of year comes from a rural custom still in vogue in England. The ceremony of the farmer and his friends includes drinking a toast of cider to the favorite apple tree.
A traditional Christmas drink among the English is the wassail. It’s made of ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. The word itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means “Be of good health.”
Later, a strong-spirited punch replaced the wassail at Christmas. Today in America the punch bowl is the dispenser of holiday cheer; chief among the favorite punches is eggnog made of cream, sugar, eggs, spices and brandy or whiskey.
In North Germany, Christmas drinks include warm beverages like rum grog, characteristic of this cold time of year. Sparkling wine is drunk on New Year’s Eve.
In France, hot spiced wine is enjoyed with the meal called le reveillon that is served after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In Mexico, where cocoa was first discovered, hot chocolate with cinnamon and vanilla is an essential element of the Christmas meal.
In America, Christmas dinner is the most enjoyed special occasion; although this meal as celebrated in other countries loses nothing by comparison.
England, in the Middle Ages, marked this holiday with customs of great lavishness. The Christmas feast began with the ceremonial entrance of the head of a boar carried on a silver platter. The Norse symbol of plenty, a lemon, was wedged into the boar’s mouth. The English custom of eating suckling pig at Christmas goes back to the same origin as the boar’s head. The board was the sacred animal of the goddess of peace and plenty, Freya, and at the winter solstice was offered in sacrifice to her.
Eventually, the famed fat goose became the preferred main meal for the English; today, the turkey has succeeded the goose in popularity. The typical English menu now features oyster soup for the first course, followed by roast turkey with all the trimmings, scalloped potatoes, braised celery, plum pudding, mince pie, and fruit.
Turkey is also a favorite traditional dish of the French, although they were once only available to the noble families. The bird would be prepared the day before cooking and stuffed at that time with truffles so the flesh of the bird would take on that special flavoring. Truffles grow wild underground in many European countries and resemble acorns, walnuts or potatoes. These days even the fairly well-to-do have replaced the expensive truffles with chestnuts.
Christmas Eve in Italy is considered a fasting day, so meat is not served. Instead, they dine on pasta and a dish made of seven different seafoods, each representing one of the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, absolution, holy orders, marriage and extreme unction. A traditional dessert is panettone, a fruit bread that is much lighter than fruitcake.
In old Russia, a ten-day pre-Christmas fast would end on Christmas Eve at sunset. The main course of the evening meal consisted of fish and finished with a dessert called contia. Contia could be boiled rice with jam, or boiled wheat with honey.
The Russian Orthodox also do not eat meat on Christmas Eve, but instead have borscht (beet soup), cabbage stuffed with buckwheat groats, and wheat cakes dropping with honey. The main holiday fish in Finland is boiled codfish with allspice, boiled potatoes and cream sauce. The menu also could include roast suckling pig or roast ham, poulukka jam, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Finnish bakeries make a special Christmas bread of rye seasoned with molasses. Kovaa leipaa, or hardtack, is also popular, as is nisua, a coffee cake, and korppua, a toasted coffee cake.
An authentic Danish Christmas dinner consists of rice porridge, roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples and served with vegetables, such as potatoes and red cabbage. An almond is hidden in one of the rice porridge servings and the one who gets the nut is entitled to an extra Christmas gift called “the almond gift.” For dessert, Danish apple cake with whipped cream is most loved.
Another Danish custom is to bake plenty of different cookies before Christmas. There is an old saying that if you call on somebody and eat nothing, you carry Christmas away from the home.
The main family meal in Sweden begins with a smorgasbord. That is followed by fish: sun-dried cod in cream sauce. There’s also ham and a white pudding, inside of which is hidden yet another whole almond. The belief is that whoever gets the almond will be married before the end of the year, or at least have good luck in the coming year!
In Mexico, the meal of the evening is a late-night Christmas feast of turkey and tortillas, fried peppers and other vegetables, fruits, candies and a traditional Christmas salad of fruits, nuts, beets and sugarcane sprinkled with tiny colored candies.
What would the holidays be without the special sweets so lovingly made? The most popular that comes to mind is the Yule log. The real tradition came from our Scandinavian ancestors who, at the feast of the winter solstice, kindled huge bonfires in honor of their god Thor. In England, it became a pretty Christmas Eve ceremony during which a huge oak root would be brought into the castle and burned amid great noise and singing. When at last the fire died out, the remnant of the log was put away until the next yuletide, to kindle with it a new Yule log.
The Yule log is a favorite everywhere in France (except, perhaps Paris, where central heating has done away with most fireplaces). To perpetuate the old custom, however, pastry cooks bake long cakes in the shape of logs with a coating of chocolate cream resembling the bark. Sometimes this cake is so realistically decorated that it is accompanied by little forest mushrooms of meringue dusted with cocoa.
Sweden is another country where holiday goodies are distinctly delicious. The most important of these are the Swedish cakes called pepparkakor or gingersnaps. These are made in the shape of animals, especially goats and pigs, the latter to represent the boars that long ago appeared at the Jul feast. Its principal ingredients consist of molasses, butter, light brown sugar, eggs, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, orange peel, cloves and flour.
There are also dainty little cakes called klenater that are rich in egg yolks, butter, sugar, sifted flour and grated rind of lemon. These are deep-fat fried to a golden brown, drained on paper towels and dusted with powdered sugar.
In Norway, so many cookies are baked for the holidays that the first great thaw following the Christmas snow is called the “cookie thaw as if the heat from al the ovens had melted the snow. In Finland, it is traditional to bake gingerbread in every size and shape.
Spiced cakes are among the oldest, best known and most popular of Christmas consumables in Germany. These are usually thin honeyed biscuits. Honey was used instead of sugar for sweetening until about 400 years ago. The liberal use of spices of all kinds in these recipes is another characteristic medieval custom.
Marzipan will also be found under every Germany Christmas tree since this has been among the most delicate, decorative, and popular of goodies for centuries. Lubeck and Konigsberg marzipan are the most celebrated of all, and are made from grated almonds, sugar, and rosewater.
Christmas fare for children includes ginger nuts, and the baking and assembling of a gingerbread house. Roast apples, an aroma that brings back many Christmas memories for older generations, should not be forgotten either.
Everyone loves holidays, but none is more steeped in tradition than that of Christmas. While recipes have changed over the years, there are many that are very close to the original that you will enjoy trying. The Colonial Pumpkin Pie is especially good because of the added richness of real cream. Hot Mexican Eggnog is a nice change from the usual. And the adventuresome can try Martha Washington’s recipe for Roast Pig. With all this, you may find some new customs to incorporate into your Christmas present and Christmas future!
Grandmother’s German Roast Apples
12 cooking apples
24 sugar cubes
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup raisins
12 teaspoons raspberry jam
2 tablespoons rum
1 stick butter
Core the washed and dried apples. Push a cube of sugar into each of the apples from underneath. Mix the almonds, raisins, and raspberry jam with the rum. Put the apples in a low dish greased with butter plus a dab of butter on top of each apple. Fill the apples with the mixture and top with the rest of the sugar cubes. Bake in a preheated oven of 350*F for 45 to 50 minutes or until apples are tender.
Hot Mexican Eggnog
1 quart milk
8 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon shredded orange peel
1 ½ cups brandy
Scald milk. Mix egg yolks and sugar in a bowl. Add scalded milk gradually, stirring constantly. Pour into top of large double boiler. Cook over boiling water, stirring constantly until mixture coats a spoon. Remove from water. Add orange peel and brandy. Mix, a small amount at a time, in an electric blender until foamy. Serve hot in punch cups. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Makes 7 cups.
Colonial Pumpkin Pie
2 9-inch deep-dish pastry shells
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups cooked pumpkin
2 cups cream
Beat eggs until light; combine with sugar, spices, salt and pumpkin. Gradually add cream, stir until well combined. Pour into pastry shells and bake in hot oven (450*F) 10 minutes; then reduce temperature to moderate (350*F) and continue baking 30 to 40 minutes longer or until knife comes out clean when inserted in custard (high altitude baking may take longer).
(From Martha Washington’s Cook Book)
1 small pig
Salt and pepper
¾ cup butter
Sprigs of thyme
½ teaspoon sugar
Thoroughly clean a young suckling pig. Dust over with salt and pepper. Put in hot oven. After about an hour, when half roasted, pull off the skin and stick the pig full of sprigs of thyme. Return to oven and baste frequently with ¾ cup butter, melted and mixed with a few course bread crumbs and sugar. It requires about 2 hours to roast the pig. Serve with Bread Sauce.
The Wassail, prepared by Charles Dickens for the entertainment, on Christmas Eve, at the Charity of Richard Watts, Rochester, Kent, of seven poor travellers not being rogues or proctors, as reported in the Christmas Number of “Household Words” for 1854.
1 quart ale
¼ ounce grated nutmeg
¼ ounce grated ginger
¼ ounce grated cinnamon
1/2 bottle sherry
2 slices toasted bread (1/2 inch thick)
1 lemon, juice and peel
Sugar to taste
2 well-baked apples
Put ale in a saucepan and cook gently until it foams, then stir in the spices, add the sherry, lemon peel and juice with the sugar. When sugar is dissolved, set the pan aside on the stove for 20 minutes to infuse. Then warm up, pour into the punch bowl, let the toast and apples float in this and serve in cups.
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