Christmas is a time when families across the globe come together to celebrate. Customs and traditions vary from country to country, but an elaborate meal is part of the celebrations wherever you look. From roast turkey, stew, meat and shellfish to fruitcake and trifles, we take a look at the culinary treats that are dished up across the world.
Icelanders most commonly have hangikjöt (‘hung meat’) on Christmas Eve. The meat, usually lamb, is pickled for a couple of days before being smoked using birch, willow and juniper woods mixed with sheep dung and straw. The strongly flavoured meat is served with potatoes in béchamel sauce, peas and red cabbage, as well as the traditional laufabrauð, a thin, crunchy bread decorated with carved-out geometric patterns.
On Christmas Eve, the Danes enjoy a substantial meal of roast pork, accompanied by boiled potatoes, red cabbage and gravy, and followed by their favourite dessert, rice pudding. The dessert is served either hot (risalamande) or cold (risengrød) and is topped with almonds, cream and cherry sauce. The host hides a peeled almond in the bowl and the guest who finds it gets a present.
Christmas Eve or Nochebuena rings in the Christmas festivities in Mexico. Homes around the country often prepare a salad of lettuce, beets and fruits followed by a dish of dried salted cod, called bacalao. In the most popular Mexican recipe, the cod is served in a stew of tomatoes, olives and potatoes. The stew comes with various side dishes, notably romeritos navideños, a herb-like plant cooked with shrimps, potatoes and a mole sauce.
In the Philippines, Christmas Eve is celebrated with a midnight mass followed by the Nochebuena feast. At large gatherings, Filipinos often dine on lechón, which is Spanish for roasted suckling pig. Other favourites include Christmas ham and a variety of spaghetti carbonara. Whichever main course a family chooses to serve, no meal is complete without keso de bola, a ball of Edam cheese in red paraffin wax.
Christmas dinner traditions vary largely in Germany, depending on who you ask, though roast goose is one of the most time-consuming to prepare. The bird is soaked in a brine of water, red wine, cinnamon and herbs overnight and then stuffed with apples and onions, roasted for hours and, towards the end, coated with honey and apricot jam. Red cabbage and potato dumplings are typical side dishes. While this does sound delicious, a lot of people opt for a no-fuss meal of sausages and potato salad.
Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine
On Christmas Eve, the Polish, Ukrainians and Lithuanians go from fast to feast. With nightfall, families celebrate the festivities with a meal of not one, but 12 dishes, which stand for the 12 apostles. In Catholic tradition, no red meat or poultry is consumed, but fish is allowed. The recipes vary in each country but range from borscht, pierogi, carp and herring to braised sauerkraut, wild mushrooms and jam-filled doughnuts.
In Ghana, Christmas dinner often consists of chicken or goat stew, okra soup and rice, but the meal wouldn’t be complete without the traditional fufu, a paste made of mashed cassava, plantain and water. It takes a lot of time and effort to prepare this signature dish. The ingredients are put into a large bowl and pounded with an oversized mortar until they form a smooth dough.
Christmas dinner in Brazil resembles that in the UK, though it comes with an exotic twist. Roast Chester, a genetically modified super-chicken, is usually at the centre of the meal. The giant bird is traditionally stuffed with chestnuts and exotic fruits such as pineapple. Coastal towns often eat bacalhau. For this dish, salted and seasoned codfish is rolled into balls before being deep fried. Side dishes include rice, cabbage and salads of veggies mixed with dried fruits.
If you’re expecting roast turkey at a US Christmas dinner, you might be disappointed. With Thanksgiving happening in November, a lot of people have had enough of poultry by the time Christmas arrives, and opt for glazed ham or roast beef as a centrepiece instead. Scalloped potatoes and a Waldorf salad are added, with pumpkin pie and Christmas pudding for dessert – a well-rounded meal!
Even though Christians are in the minority in Asia, South Korea is an exception and celebrates Christmas with a national holiday. Potluck dinners are popular, and cafes and restaurant remain open during the holidays, with a lot of families flocking to hotels and restaurants for an extensive buffet dinner. This will include all kinds of Korean specialities such as bulgogi, barbecued ribs, crab legs, sweet potato noodles, pollack pancakes, kimchi and popular steamed rice cakes.
Christmas dinners in Italy often have seven, nine, 12 or even 21 courses, all of which are symbolic numbers in Catholicism. As in the Catholic Eastern European nations, an Italian Christmas dinner follows religious tradition and excludes meat from the menu. Fish and seafood play an ever-more significant role, and some families celebrate the occasion with a Festa dei Sette Pesci, ‘the feast of the seven fish’. Popular dishes include baccalà (dried and salted cod), vermicelli with clams or mussels, lasagne and many kinds of pasta.
UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
Here, Christmas is all about having a roast. In the UK, the most traditional is roast turkey, though other poultry is popular too. The main dish is served with a bunch of sides: stuffing, gravy, root vegetables, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Because of the warm temperatures, people in Australia and New Zealand often serve the meats cold, have a barbecue instead or opt for seafood.
The Swedes prepare a whole range of festive foods for their Christmas Eve dinner: the smörgåsbord. Julskinka, the Christmas ham, is usually the centre of attention. It is first boiled, then glazed with a mix of egg, mustard and breadcrumbs and finally baked in the oven. Another favourite is lutfisk, which is dried stockfish that is soaked in water and lye for several days. The rest of the buffet table is decked out with herring salad, rye bread, gubbröra (an egg and anchovy salad), pork sausages and more.
Though they share a lot of Christmas traditions with the UK, South Africans will most likely fire up the barbecue on Christmas Day for a braai. Glazed gammon, turkey, leg of lamb and crayfish are prepared over the open fire and dished up with grilled corn, potato salad, vegetables and various sauces. The main course is often followed by either a trifle or Malva pudding, a spongy and sweet Christmas pudding topped with warm custard.
Norway’s most popular Christmas Eve meal centres around ribbe, or roast pork belly. Potatoes, sauerkraut, vegetables, gravy and lingonberry jam are popular sides. In western Norway, mutton ribs are far more popular. Like the Danes, Norwegians love rice pudding topped with raspberries for dessert.