Even if you can't travel this year, you can take your tastebuds on a vicarious tour of the world’s delicious holiday foods
While traditionally a Christian holiday, the celebration of Christmas has transcended religious boundaries and is now embraced by people of various cultures and faiths and has become a global day of feasting and celebrating. In the U.S. the holiday season kicks off with Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November, and extends until New Year's Day. In between there are Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's Eve, each with its own feasts and foods. Some countries’ holiday season extends to January 6, which in Christian belief is the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to meet the baby Jesus.
The whole season is also prime time for traveling. Schools are off, business is slow, and the whole world seems to kick back and relax. If you are one of the lucky travelers this holiday season, good for you! We wish you joy, a great adventure, and great eating while you're away.
But if you aren’t traveling, a vicarious tour of the world's holiday foods and traditions will have to do. Come with us as we take your tastebuds on a delicious tour of Christmas foods around the world.
First stop on the taste tour: Iceland, where the Christmas season, or Jól (sounds a lot like Yule), as it’s called in Icelandic, lasts from December 12 to January 6. During that time, Christmas-related festivities involving food and drink, cultural and religious events, parties and family dinners, decorations, and shopping keep many people busy. But Iceland doesn’t have a jolly Santa dropping presents down the chimney. Instead, there are the mischievous 13 Yule lads and their creepy mother, Gryla, who add a bit of spookiness to the Icelandic Christmas.
Staples of the Icelandic Christmas table include fermented skate, pickled herring, and hangikjöt (smoked lamb) accompanied by potatoes drenched in a creamy béchamel sauce and vibrant green peas. No meal would be complete without laufabrauð (leaf bread), a delicate and crispy flatbread with intricate leaf patterns made with special rolling pins. Laufabrauð is also served with butter as a festive breakfast accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate.
Other non-food-related Icelandic traditions are no less important. On Christmas Eve, there is the Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood, during which Icelanders typically exchange books as presents, which they then spend the evening reading. With customs like this, it’s no wonder the country has close to a 100% literacy rate and sells more books per capita than any other country. The reading is often accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate. Sounds cozy, right? If you want to visit Iceland and explore this wonderful culture, take a look at one of our tours for inspiration then contact us at email@example.com to start planning your perfect trip.
Next stop, Finland, home to Santa Claus—yes, according to Finns, Santa, or as they call him, Joulupukki, makes his home in the town of Rovaneimi in Lapland, where he receives visitors every day—except when he’s out delivering presents of course.
Traditional Finnish Christmas dinner: ham, beet salad, smoked salmon, mushroom salad, potato casserole, and mulled wine.
Besides Santa, Finland has many family-based Christmas traditions. During the festive season, Finns like to take things slow and enjoy the company of loved ones—with a side of mulled wine and a sauna. At midday on Christmas Eve, the declaration of the Peace of Christmas is broadcast on TV and radio, a tradition dating back 700 years.
The Finnish Joulupöytä, or Yule table, plays a central role in the country’s Christmas celebrations. It contains many different dishes but you can always count on a pork roast or ham as the main dish for the Christmas meal in most homes. It’s served with a variety of fish, casseroles, and salads. The traditional Christmas Eve breakfast is rice pudding. One of the most cherished seasonal customs is decorating gingerbread, which is often hung from the branch of a spruce tree. At the end of the night, there’s another sacred ritual: a relaxing dip into a wood-fired sauna and viewing the Northern Lights. As you can see in the opening photo above, they are magical.
In Japan, Christmas is not a national holiday but it is widely observed with a blend of local and Western customs. A popular tradition is enjoying a meal of fried chicken, particularly from the famous KFC, which thanks to a successful marketing campaign in the 1970s, made fried chicken synonymous with Christmas in Japan.
Japan also produces a showstopper Christmas cake, or kurisumasu keki in Japanese. But don’t think dark rum-soaked fruit cake. Instead, the Japanese version is an elegant light sponge layered with strawberries and covered with cream.
Elsewhere in Asia, Christmas is also celebrated with local accents. In South Korea, Christmas is not traditionally celebrated as a religious holiday but has gained popularity as a festive occasion for couples, much like Valentine’s Day. Sujeonggwa, a refreshing cinnamon punch made with ginger and dried persimmons, is a hallmark of the winter season.
In Vietnam, a country with a significant Catholic minority and a history of colonial rule by the French, Christmas traditions incorporate Western influences along with indigenous food and customs. In cities you’ll see Christmas trees, lights, and decorations in the streets. There are festive markets with a variety of holiday treats. The season’s food is also a glorious mixture of different cultures. American classics like roasted turkey, ribs, and ham infused with Vietnamese flavors like lemongrass and ginger share the table with Vietnamese favorites like seafood fried rice. Finishing it all off is likely to be a Yule log cake, aka Bûche de Noël, an example of the lasting influence of French cuisine on the cooking of Vietnam.
In Spain, Christmas, or Navidad, is a time for lively street celebrations and endless amounts of delicious food. The Spanish Christmas table is abundant with cheeses, cold cuts, roasts, breads, cakes, and sweets of every sort. Turrón, a sweet nougat made with almonds and honey, is a cherished Christmas dessert, often enjoyed with a glass of sparkling cava.
In Spain, January 6, known as El Día de los Reyes Magos (Kings Day), is a major holiday that has its own dessert, the Roscon de Reyes (kings cake). While it is called “cake” in English, the Roscon de Reyes is more of a sweet bread. It resembles a very large doughnut and is filled with cream or other sweet fillings (chocolate or custard) and garnished with candied fruit evoking the jewels in the king's crown.
The traditional Kings Cake for Three Kings Day in Spain is shaped like a donut and filled with sweet cream. The candied fruit is meant to resemble jewels in a king’s crown.
Talk of sweet bread brings us to Italy, the home of the most prized sweet bread in the country, the ubiquitous panettone. This delicious bread-cake, which originated in Milan, is one of the few Christmas foods that is eaten everywhere in Italy, where regional specialties often prevail. Panettone has a buttery, eggy brioche-like dough that takes two days to make. But the delicate, rich, almost addictive flavor is worth every minute of work. The classic version contains raisins, currants, candied orange peels, and orange and lemon zest but there are others with flavorings such as chocolate chips, black cherry, or nuts. Still others are double chocolate: chocolate dough and chunks of chocolate to boot. Want to taste some panettone? We can plan your perfect trip to Italy. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
The classic panettone is filled with candied fruit, orange and lemon zest, currants, and raisins.
No matter where you are in the world, Christmas is about spreading love and cheer. So here’s wishing you Feliz Navidad, Meri Kurisumasu, Gleðileg Jól, Hyvää Joulua, Buon Natale, and a very Happy Holiday.
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Seeing the wildlife in the Masai Mara Preserve in Kenya is a life-changing experience. Photo by Gabriel Schumacher on Unsplash.
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