Christmas is celebrated around the world in as many ways as there are cultures. While the central religious themes remain similar, the festivities and foods surrounding the holiday vary from land to land. Much of this special holiday food is based on regional cuisine, and some of it is based on myths and superstitions. All of it, however, is special and unique to this one holiday that happens every year.
Many people know about the basic history of Christmas, but not many people know that a winter holiday, with many similarities to Christmas, was being celebrated for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The winter solstice celebrations throughout Europe were popular for centuries. These holidays were full of merriment, week-long parties and, of course, food and drink. It was a time of mass alcohol consumption. There was also more meat consumed during this time than any other during the year. Because it was so cold, the cattle were not feeding during the winter regularly, so many families would simply slaughter them to save money on feed. This meant huge amounts of fresh meat that was easy to preserve in the cold European winter. Rome celebrated a similar pre-Christ holiday called Saturnalia. This was a month full of partying and overindulgence of food and drink. Once Christmas was established, some of the ideas were translated from the pagan holidays that many were used to.
The significance of having dishes that are made specifically for Christmas is two-fold. The first idea is that you eat foods that are special or rare during this time because the holiday, itself, is special and rare. The expensive foods that are reserved for the very wealthy or entertaining purposes only are pulled out and the tables are adorned with them, rich and poor. It is part of the message of Christmas, that the savior provides for everyone equally, and that no one should go without the very best on this special day. The second idea behind special dishes on Christmas is symbolic. From land to land, there are foods that represent certain things in certain cultures. In Italy, it is the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, while in Sweden it is Lingenberries and rice pudding.
As mentioned before, different countries have different ways to celebrate Christmas with food. The Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes can be anything from the very literal seven fried fish, to elaborate dishes of calamari, smoked salmon and whole baked red snapper. Only after the stroke of midnight is it permissible to eat meat, so oftentimes there will be two suppers: one before midnight mass, comprised entirely of fish, and one after mass, which will include meat and pasta dishes. In England, the typical feast is very rich and heavy. Duck and goose are common, as are gravies, potatoes and lots of sweets. The traditional English Christmas Pudding is made months ahead of time and steamed the day it is eaten. It is served with a butter and sugar combination called "hard sauce." In Mexico, the emphasis is definitely on sweets during this holiday. There are many delicious cookies that are common to be served on Christmas, but perhaps the most famous food-bearing guest at the Mexican Christmas party is the piñata. The piñata is a paper mache animal that is filled with homemade candies, then swung at by blindfolded children.
Size is always a component of anyone who is planning a Christmas feast. Generally speaking, a traditional Christmas dinner is a large affair, and those recipes which can be either multiplied, or are simply too big to prepare for a small group, are pulled out and put to the test. One dish that has become very popular in the United States and England for Christmas is the standing rib roast of beef. This is a delicious dish, but one that can't be made on a regular basis, unless you have a family of 10 or more. In France, beef bourguignon is often made for this special day because it is a braised dish that can serve dozens of people.
Before you plan your next Christmas get-together, make sure that you pay close attention to the dishes you will be serving. Honoring your heritage through the celebratory foods you serve can be extremely rewarding and give your guests both insight into who you are and also educate them a little. The dishes can serve as a fun way to open people's eyes to how different cultures celebrate the same holiday, and your guests will most certainly be talking about your get together the next day.