Recently, in hope of reminding my Jewish and pandemic self what Christmas is all about (stuffing your face), I asked my Twitter followers what a Christmas feast looks like in other parts of the world.
We Ashkenazi Jews have more rigid food traditions for our own holidays than Christians do for Christmas. Take Pesach, for example: It’s no seder at all without an exactingly appointed seder plate. Even low-stakes holidays like Hanukkah are all about the latkes and gelt. And of course, we have holy days like Yom Kippur when we aren’t supposed to eat at all. So learning about all the variations in Christmas feasts was an interesting exercise because, respectfully, you crazy kids sure do play fast and loose! While I loved hearing about the ackee and saltfish and French toast (!) that grace other countries’ Christmas tables, what struck me most was that Christmas doesn’t seem to require any particular food at all, no matter where you go.
The Australian Christmas table contains a lot of cold meat and seafood, which surprised me until my correspondents pointed out the obvious: It takes place during the summer. “The whole white Christmas thing was like a fairy tale for me,” Sydney resident Yasmin Cameron explains. “I loved how cozy it seemed, and how you’d have a hot roast dinner and drink eggnog. That sort of thing doesn’t really fit with the Aussie climate.”
Or as Brisbane resident Sean Neagle puts it, “A funny Aussie pastime is keeping bonded to the monarchy’s teat. My family and many others do a token turkey and cranberry and all the trappings, as if we’re sitting in sub-zero temperatures around a crackling fire. But given that we’re in the Southern hemisphere, Christmas day is often stifling hot. Seafood is king.”
Right! Duh! Who the hell wants to gather around a damn open fire when you can get Christmas dinner out of the way early and then go have yourself a merry little Point Break moment down by the beach? Who are these miscreants roasting a bird in Australian summer temperatures because the queen says so?
Still, it all sounds great, traditional Christmas pavlova notwithstanding. I have no love for the pavlova, an egg-white meringue that consists of mostly air and has a real stingy vibe as a result. But it’s a light dessert for a sweltering time, so I’ll allow it.
I’ll let Bernard Ferguson from Nassau speak for himself: “We Bahamians love Christmas. The list of dishes that might appear around a Bahamian Christmas table is long and copious largely because Christmas is really our shit. It’s our day to revel and sing and treat each other well. We’re a people who love to party and celebrate, and Christmas is one of the days of the year where we prove it.” (One thing I noticed in my efforts to understand The Spirit of Christmas was that the traditional Christmas celebrations that sounded the most fun involved the word “party” specifically — not just “celebrate” or “be with family,” but “party.”)
And what of the long, copious list of Bahamian Christmas dishes?
The list is quite literally too long to include in its entirety, but tellingly, it includes about a half dozen foods that would easily be the centerpiece of any American meal on their own — conch soup, Christmas ham, wings (!), mac ’n’ cheese and a Bahamian dish called souse (a lemon-y, well-spiced soup where some sort of meat is the star, like chicken wings, sheep tongue or pigs’ feet).
Plus, a long list of desserts that deserves to be presented unabridged — “carrot cake, fruit cake, rum cake, pound cake, cheese cake, guava duff and an assortment of tarts all on one large table in the corner of someone’s auntie’s dining room,” per Ferguson. Phew! I have to go lie down for an hour.
The revelry doesn’t end on Christmas Day, either. “One tradition in particular that we love is our Junkanoo Parade that happens on Boxing Day, close to 1 a.m., the day after Christmas,” Ferguson explains. “On many Caribbean islands, Boxing Day was the only day off that masters gave to their slaves, and so, the slaves would parade through the streets celebrating their brief freedom, singing and dancing in impressive costumes made of cheap material. Christmas Day is mostly a day where Bahamian families go to church, then gather to laugh and eat for many hours, after which they take naps to sleep off their full bellies, and then rise again around midnight — like giddy moons — to join the sometimes tens of thousands of Bahamians on the streets, dancing and singing like our peoples once did in a harsher time.”
One traditional Brazilian Christmas food is French toast, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to run away with the competition here. (Yes, it’s a competition, and the prize is “my gluttonous Jewish heart.”)
To be clear, as São Paulo resident Gabriela Daher Souza explains, it’s not just any French toast — it’s Brazilian French toast, an unreal-looking treat called rabanada, or crusty bread in a condensed milk custard. And it’s crucial. “My mum makes it every year, and it’s the most delicious thing on the Christmas table,” Souza says. “It’ll get taken away from the table a while before dinner because otherwise no one would eat anything else.”
I sympathize with the people who don’t want to eat anything else. I’ve never had it, and I don’t want to eat anything else. But there’s so much else! Despite sharing a hemisphere with Australia, Brazil goes whole hog with this whole feasting-in-summer thing. Alongside the usual suspects like a roast bird, Brazil has many proprietary tricks up its sleeve. “There’s a lot of rice bowls with different toppings,” Souza says. “Farofa, which is a toasted cassava flour mixture that sometimes has bacon. We have a thing called salpicão, which I ate once as a kid and hated. It’s a cold salad with chicken meat, fruits and vegetables, and thin potato chips on top.”
One more detail about Brazilian Christmas that I could really find no place for, but which tickled me so much that I had to share it regardless: The Brazilian term for “Secret Santa” translates literally to “secret friend.” Reader, I aww-ed.
As a Jew, I’m not the most Christmas-literate, but one Christmas tradition that I knew cold was Italy’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, having celebrated it with an ex’s family over joyless plates of lukewarm, rubbery seafood. I know that Italy is no monolith, and its regions don’t share as many traditions as would a similarly sized part of the U.S. Still, I didn’t expect the friendly dismissal I got from Piemonte-born Umberto Mazzei. “I believe the Feast of Seven Fishes might be more of an Italian-American thing…?” Mazzei offers politely. “Or at least I don’t really know anybody who celebrates it.” Madonn’!
However, Mazzei’s explanation aligned with my other hypothesis: There is no one Italian tradition. “Christmas foods are different from region to region, and also depending on where you’re from in Italy, the big Christmas meal is celebrated at different times,” Mazzei explains. “Fish is popular on the Christmas table in Southern Italy, where meat is more common in Piemonte.” As for those popular meat dishes, it seems that the pig is king of the Piemonte feast table. Zampone (cured pig trotter) and cotechino with lenticchie (pork sausage with lentils) are two favorites.
What about panettone, those unappealing raisin breads that I’m forever knocking over stacks of every time I turn a corner in my supermarket from Halloween until the New Year? Here, Mazzei was both impassioned and correct: “Let the record reflect that the original panettone, with all those fucking raisins and candied orange, is an abomination.”
With a mother from Kingston and a father from Mumbai, Jamaican Alex Kalathia partakes of a Christmas meal that sounds, to use the medical term, lit as fuck. First and foremost, they feature jerk chicken rather than a dry-ass turkey (DAT), which is ideal. Patties also abound, both callaloo and beef, and rice and peas are a staple. “Add in some Indian dishes and my mother’s eggplant parmesan, and you have a table with a lot going on,” Kalathia says. Sign me up.
British-Jamaican Lewis Findley’s Christmas table also features ackee and saltfish, the brightly seasoned Jamaican classic starring salted cod. But his feasts include dishes like Yorkshire puddings and cauliflower cheese as well, two British-inflected dishes that Kalathia’s Christmases don’t involve. Makes sense, considering the sheer number of Jamaican people living in Britain.
I knew Yorkshire puddings as a popover-like little devil that appears sometimes on the Great British Baking Off. Anytime a Yorkshire pudding was the challenge, there would inevitably be a Yorkshire resident in the tent who needed to bake perfect Yorkshire puddings or else be flogged in the town square upon his disgraceful return (I’m paraphrasing).
Cauliflower cheese was mysterious. After Googling it, I kind of wish I’d let it remain mysterious. Findley spoke highly of his family’s Christmas meal (and for good reason — alongside all these mainstays, there’s also salmon, which when paired with the ackee and saltfish sounds like a bright way to spend a wintry holiday). But boiled cauliflower in unseasoned cheese sauce feels like something only a Brit could love. British people have said similar things to me about green bean casserole. It takes all kinds.
If any Mexican or Brazilian readers want to invite a lonely and pitiable Jew to their Christmas dinners, they should feel very free. Mexican Christmas, like Brazilian Christmas, sounds good as hell. Guadalajara resident Sergio Martínez speaks glowingly of the glazed hams, pozole and buñuelos that adorn the Mexican Christmas table. And let’s not forget ponche, a cider-like hot drink made with apples and tejocotes (berries whose taste is somewhere between apple and peach).
But even better than what’s present might be what’s absent: that damnable turkey.
Well, there is turkey, but there doesn’t have to be turkey, which in my estimation puts Mexico far ahead of any country that involves this wretched bird in its holiday proceedings. “Turkey dinners are common, but not as common as you may think,” confirms Martínez. “We eat turkey every year — you don’t see stores carrying it outside of Christmas season, so it’s the only chance we get. But it’s also difficult to prepare properly, so a lot of families opt for something else.”
Turkey sure is difficult to prepare properly. I would hazard that the most proper turkey preparation is to just prepare something else instead. Horrible bird notwithstanding, Mexican Christmas has lots to recommend, particularly its longevity. Spanish conquistadors (who do not have much to recommend) brought nearly two solid weeks of feasting known as the Posadas to Mexico with them. “The traditions of Mexican Christmas run deep,” says Martínez. “We are a majorly Catholic country that, nonetheless, still has a deep connection with our indigenous roots. Most festivities you see here are a mixture of those two worlds.”
Victoria Osoria comes from a more rural community and speaks of another lovely-sounding Mexican tradition: tamale-making. “A lot of families start making tamales toward late December,” she says. “My family would get together and make a boatload of tamales on Christmas Eve; we have leftovers for weeks.”
A good way to ensure that you have a bad time on Twitter is to be American and crack wise about British food. You’ll just be playing, saying something bitchy about beans on toast and suddenly your mentions are full of replies asking how we Americans like going broke over our health care and getting shot to death in shopping malls. (We don’t! But it’s telling that these are the atrocities that even British people equate to the act of eating beans on toast!)
So I’ll tread carefully here. I won’t say that I’ve always been, and remain, mystified by British sweets like mince pies and Christmas pudding (both made with dried fruit, the former baked in pastry, the latter steamed). These desserts do have an imposing traditionalism about them, as they hail from a time before the French kitchen’s more luxurious approach to dessert-making took over. Is imposing traditionalism a feature that most people seek out in their desserts? Hard to say — Americans don’t favor it, though, our country’s culinary traditions are young. We’re like kids sticking our tongues out at the sight of mom and dad eating vegetables.
According to Guildford-born Kevin Ashton, however, Americans really do develop a taste for those Christmas puddings. “I make them as gifts for my American friends, who take a polite bite, then fall in love with it and want it every year,” he vows. “You hide a silver sixpence in them, and whoever gets that is lucky for the year.”
I also will not say that it probably would have been better for everyone if the English colonizers hadn’t brought turkeys back to the old country with them, since before turkey was the star of the British Christmas table, they got to eat goose! What a treat! But as Ashton confirms, turkey is cheap, and goose is not. Fair enough.
One thing about British Christmas that does sound fun, though, is pulling crackers — goofy little decorations that pop loudly upon being pulled and contain charming party favors. So if any British people are still speaking to me after this, they should mail me some crackers to inflict on my friends.
Jewish-American Christmas is a thing. No, we don’t do the stuff with the church and the turkey and the blessed baby Jesus, but as anyone with even one Jewish friend can tell you, we have Christmas traditions of our own: Chinese food, and going to the movies, or the only two recreational activities that have always been open on Christmas Day in the U.S.
It was common around the turn of the century for Jews to dip their toes into non-kosher eating by frequenting Chinese eateries, which proffered tasty food that we convinced ourselves was “safe treyf.” Non-kosher ingredients like pork and shrimp got chopped up so finely that they no longer retained their distinctive tastes, and Chinese food also doesn’t mix dairy with meat. Plus, Jews entering Chinese restaurants in traditional garb didn’t meet with the stares or snide comments that they could expect in establishments run by WASPs.
It was a comfortable compromise, all the more so on a day when there’s nothing else to do but snip at your family members at home (another time-honored Jewish tradition). When movie theaters followed a few decades later, we adopted them into our Christmas tradition for the same solemnly religious reasons: They were there, and they were open for Jewish business.
My family has more enthusiasm for Jewish Christmas than we’ve ever had for Hanukkah. It’s fun to venture into a ghostly quiet city and spend a day surrounded by other Jews in a strictly secular capacity — I don’t think American Christians have anything like it, partaking as they do of the default religion that decides when public gathering places are closed.