Amaan Akhtar interviewed twelve of his friends to tell us about their families’ customs around the world, and how this season of festivities seems to bring everyone together over good food. We hope this article makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the traditions you may celebrate year after year!
Over the years I have spoken to many people about their particular festive traditions to get an idea about how they celebrate the holidays. And one of the major aspects that everyone mentions is the specific types of food and drink they have.
It was always fascinating to learn about the diverse range of food and drink traditions that my friends had over the festive period. Whether it has to do with gorging on special types of cuisine, cooking with family, or simply sharing a meal with loved ones and catching up – everyone has their own specific traditions. I interviewed a dozen of my friends to gain a better understanding of their particular food and drink traditions, and the important role these traditions have during the festive holidays.
For many of us, it is the time where we get to enjoy treats that we don’t often have during the rest of the year. My friend Cosette (an American who lived in Germany for most of her life), said that during the festive period they usually make fudge and sugar cookies which they sometimes decorate with their neighbours. On Christmas, after decorating the tree as a family, they enjoy having gingerbread cookies and hot eggnog with rum, while listening to their favourite Christmas album. They usually follow this with roast ham for dinner, and pecan pie for dessert. And for New Year’s, they have a decadent selection of cheese and chocolate fondue, with a roast beef dinner and fruit pie for dessert.
Her family has these particular traditions because their mum doesn’t allow them to have sugary treats at home outside of the festive season. But Cosette doesn’t mind, as it is all part of the tradition and experience: they have fun preparing these foods together and eating in their formal dining room. Her family moved around a few times during her life and most recently they have moved back to the States. So, these special family rituals are especially important to her as these food traditions remain the same wherever they live, giving a sense of continuity and grounding to Cosette’s life each year.
For others, the food and drink traditions have evolved over time. Annabelle von Moltke, a German-American residing in London, had this to say: on the 24th they start with salmon and cream cheese rolls as an appetiser. This is often accompanied by ‘Raclette’, a semi-hard cheese wheel that is heated and scraped onto dinner plates (but the cheese dish can also be served with other common appetisers such as potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions, and dried meat). More recently, her family added drinking Bailey’s on Christmas Eve to their traditions. On Christmas itself, they usually have a meat dish but it can vary from year to year.
For Annabelle, the routine is familiar and enjoyable for her even though their meals vary and they decide each year as a family on what to cook (however, a meat dish is strictly kept for Christmas day, as it is an old family tradition). She wouldn’t mind if they changed the dishes again next year, as it is more important to her that the festive period provides a “setting of togetherness, speeches, crackers, and jokes”.
An interesting thing I noticed was how those with shared national roots can have differing food customs. Jonathan Maresca, an Italian-American from New York, has cultural ties to the salmon dish he has for Christmas; it is an old Italian tradition that his parents adhere by. My Italian friend Lorenzo, too, generally has fish-based dishes with his family on Christmas Eve: pasta with salmon and cream, fried cod, and some appetisers. (Having fish dishes around Christmas time is known as a catholic tradition, since Christ was born on Christmas day. So in honour of this holy day, Catholics abstained from meat and dairy and instead usually ate fish typically cooked in oil.) On the following day, Lorenzo’s family have meat for lunch like ‘Anolini Di Carne’ (meat-stuffed pasta in broth), and the second dishes consist of the leftover meat used for this first dish. To finish the meal, they have typical desserts such as ‘Pandoro e Panettone’ (Italian sweet cakes). And they generally serve all these dishes with a lot of wine!
In contrast to this, a friend who lives in Cagliari (capital city of the Italian island of Sardinia), eats a traditional dish called ‘Porceddu’: A 6-7kg roasted suckling piglet stuffed with meat, rosemary, fennel, and other herbs. This pork platter is deeply rooted in Italian culture and is only served at special feasts (i.e. weddings or large family gatherings). While the food customs and traditions vary for each of them, one thing is for certain: these traditions have all been passed down from previous generations of family, which gives these different types of cuisine a sentimental value that can always be cherished.
Ruxy Chitac has a Romanian family feast on Christmas: they have a lot of traditional courses such as meatballs with caramelised onions and mayonnaise (a personal favourite of hers), cream cheese with chives, aubergine paste, caviar paste, and freshly baked bread. Next, stuffed cabbages with soured cream and some form of meat roast is always had for dinner, accompanied by mashed potatoes, salads, and pickles. But it doesn’t stop there – there is a course between the appetisers and the main dinner too! Usually it would be boiled meat in a gelatinous matrix made from broth. Finally, for dessert they tuck into an assortment of cakes (based on how they feel that year), including the likes of little chocolate and walnut Christmas trees, brandy snaps with chocolate mousse, and Cozonac bread.
When it came to drinking traditions in her household, there were a few. Those who drank alcohol in her family drank ‘tuica’ and ‘palinca’ (Romanian types of alcohol made from plums or apricots), right before a meal as an aperitif. Home-made wine is also consumed during the festive period, as well as soft drinks such as coke – since it is needed to aid digestion during the large feast they have. She also has a fascinating tradition where her family offer Romanian baked bagels and fruit to people who come to sing carols at their doorstep.
The food and drink traditions play a huge part in her festive celebrations at home in Romania, since they literally sit together as a family around the table for hours to get through the feast. As others have said before, the preparation experience is a huge family ritual that Ruxy also cherishes. She fondly remembers the sleepless nights before Christmas eve, where everyone gets involved to prepare the food. Ruxy felt that being involved in these family traditions gradually led to her thinking of cooking as a therapeutic experience - where the best memories with food and drink during this festive period shaped her as a person over the years.
For others, the festive holidays are a way to pay homage to their multi-cultural upbringing. Layla Levy, born in Mexico and raised in Paris, has two large meals on the 24th (with all the family) and the 25th - where the leftovers are eaten from the previous day. They used to have mainly French cuisine on the day such as foie gras, oysters, and salmon – but they now often have ‘ensalada de Navidad’ (a salad dish which has many variations) and ‘turron’ (nougat confection made from honey, sugar, egg white, and toasted almonds/nuts). While their food traditions have transitioned recently, they still stick to having champagne during the festive period! And on New Year’s, Layla and her family have a tradition of eating 12 grapes when the clock strikes midnight. These traditions are important for her because she has the opportunity to celebrate her mixed heritage and her family roots, as well as the chance to fondly remember her childhood.
And then there are traditions that are beloved for their simplicity. Natalia, a Londoner with Spanish roots, says that when they visit relatives in Spain, they have big festive dinners around Christmas and New Year’s – each meal consisting of up to 7 courses. But the traditions that her family stick with back home are champagne and chocolate. While they may have varied courses over the festive period, those two are the main luxuries they enjoy. And for her, she loves these traditions because she is surrounded by family and good food!
Similarly, Seanin Maxwell – my Northern Irish friend – also has a simple tradition of enjoying Irish coffee (coffee, sugar, Irish whiskey, and cream on top) at her aunt’s house. After they have their own dinner consisting of turkey and stuffing, she finds the warming drink a perfect delight for heating her up during cold Irish winters. Funnily enough, it is also the only time of the year that Seanin drinks coffee because her aunt makes it just right! She said that, “It wouldn’t be the same without getting the whole family together and catching up with each other without a drink,” as it helps make this time of the year feel truly festive and different for her.
Yet, there are some quirky traditions which also resonate the same warm and vibrant family atmosphere. Freddie Lawrence (from Southend in Essex) eats a full English breakfast with his family at a café on Christmas day. Simply because it is the same café they all go to every Sunday without fail. But during the afternoon they opt for a buffet of cold meats and cheeses, since they think it’s unfair for one person in the family to take on the majority of the cooking.
Additionally, Tessimo Mahuta, from Teignmouth (Devon), has British food such as mince pies and Christmas pudding for dessert. They also share their own classic Christmas drinks like port wine and rum. But the main course consists of a bacon-wrapped turkey (yes, you read that right) since it is her brother’s responsibility to cook Christmas dinner, and this is his favourite way to cook a turkey! But for Tess this is an important period of the year, as cooking and eating are things she only spends time doing during the festive period. Her family rarely get to see each other, so they collectively decide to spend those couple of days together with a crowd-pleasing amount of food and drink. The way she see it is simply this: “ Instead of thinking of games or activities for the whole family, cooking and eating bring our whole family together”.
And I couldn’t have said it better myself.
One thing to note here is that all of these food and drink traditions highlight a sense of unity and family bonding. In every story that I heard - whether the Christmas period was celebrated culturally and/or religiously - the same recurring theme of family and spending time with one another was emphasized. These themes are even apparent in the traditions of those who do not celebrate the festive period: my friend Bipaswi, from Nepal, enjoys certain delicacies such as ‘Momos’ (dumplings filled with either meat or vegetables) with his family during big gatherings. The century-old tradition of having Momos during his native festivities in October/November continues today because he grew up with these traditions and they’ve been an integral part of his childhood. Similarly, Maitri Patel (from Preston) celebrates the festive period just by being in the presence of her family. She comes from an Indian family who are vegetarian, so when she has an opportunity to go home, her parents make her those beloved curry dishes she has been craving for so long.
And finally there is me.
I grew up in a family household that didn’t celebrate Christmas due to religious beliefs. This meant that during our childhood - whenever the end of the year loomed upon us - we never got into the “Christmas spirit” and our New Year’s celebrations consisted of watching fireworks on the TV. But as we grew up and our family became modernised from western culture and traditions, we also began to “casually” celebrate the festive period over the past several years.
In terms of food, however, our feast would either consist of a curry dish or some fish/meat dish on Christmas. But on those extra special occasions when I am able to go home for a long period of time, my parents indulge my craving for samosas – and we prepare and cook them together as a family. Because, at the end of the day, that is what the festive period is about: it brings us home, to spend time together with our loved ones around a common dinner table. To be able to share stories and catch up after months or years of being separated. And food and drink traditions are a remarkably great way to celebrate and cherish those beloved moments.
And hopefully this festive period, you get a chance to do just that.
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