A set of food traditions associated with the observance of Christmas.
The festive and warm-hearted evocations of the Christmas season are complementary to the pursuit of the full-bodied cuisine described herein. Christmas dinners may employ candlelight and quiet music to stimulate conversation and to buffer the tensions.
A family need not indulge in the heaviness of pies and pudding. British food-writer Elizabeth David describes a perfect Christmas eating experience as follows: "If I had my way, and I shan't, eating and drinking would consist of an omelet and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of Champagne on a tray in bed in the evening." Elegance exemplified.
The Main Course
The Christmas feast in North America and in Europe is centered around a meal on Christmas Day (or Eve) incorporating a main dish of turkey, cornish game hen, cod, or ham. While the main dish varies widely among countries, the perception of the dish as "special" is the only unifying principle. The use of turkey in England and America originates only from the 19th century, when that bird replaced goose. Similarly, the ancestry of Christmas pudding (from plum pottage) in its current layering of flavors can be traced to the same era -- though the original recipe goes back many centuries.
The culinary practice that is most continuous and least varying across cultures and eras is the seasonal obsession with baking. The preparation of a vast array of assorted baked items -- both savory and sweet -- reaches its annual peak during Christmastide: from Advent in early December to Twelfth Night on January 6th. All Christmas breads involve dough mixed with quantities of butter, eggs, and sugar. Many breads make use of lemon zest, assorted spices, and embellishments of nuts and dried, crystallized or canned fruit.
Of particular note is that, while Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ by definition, a number of pagan traditions have become stitched into the culinary fabric of Christmas--particularly in the shapes of baked foods.
Recall that in Switzerland and Germany, St. Nicholas is thought to reward good children with sweets, and punish the rest with switches. Swiss bakers prepare Weihnachtsmanner (Father Christmases) and Grittibanzen (dough men) for the occasion. These range in taste and design: from simple childlike figures with eyes made from currants to more ornate inventions involving fringed scarves, jackets, and walking sticks with rich icing and colorful toppings. Walter Bachmann's Continental Confectionery (1955) suggests that these figures originally represented winter gods as depicted in the Norse sagas of the Middle Ages.
Christmas Birnbrot includes kirsch with spiced pear fillings, encased in a lightly sweetened and enriched dough. Tannenzapfen (pine cone cake) is composed of thin layers of sponge built up into the shape of a pine cone lying on it side, covered in a coffee-flavored buttercream. These layers are stabbed by split toasted almonds resembling the scales on pine cones.
St. Lucy's Day (December 13) in Sweden has, as its characteristic sweet, the saffron bun: dough mixed with fruit, candied peel, and almonds and shaped into plaits, crosses, and buns called Lussekatter (St. Lucy's Cats). One tradition of Sweden places the youngest daughter in the kitchen to prepare these breakfast buns, her head decorated with ligonberry branches and lit candles.
Sweets, Puddings, and Pies
The traditional English sweet, dark Fruit Cake (Dundee) shares the table with all manner of sweet, spiced and decorated fruit breads. Adorned gaudily in iced decorations, fruit cakes were originally named Twelfth Night Cakes for the night of Epiphany, the occasion that once involved great feasts and revelry. These sweets are complemented (for better or for worst) with Christmas pudding: consisting of barley, currants and raisins with two or three blades of mace, all of it boiled up together in water, sweetened to taste and finally bound together with a half-pint of white wine.
Add to this cornucopia -- one must use this term eventually! -- the famous Mince Pie, practically an institution in England. In the Christmas banquets of the Middle Ages, the mince pie figured as a rich, fruity but savory (i.e., salty, meaty, or spicy in taste) pie. Elinor Fettiplace gives us a deliciously layered recipe which makes use of the following colorful ingredients: meat, suet, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, orange peel, raisins and rose water -- the result of which is said to have the mouthfeel and taste effects of a samosa. The cascading layers of sweet and savory flavors endured until the Victorian era. What we have now is a meatless, dried fruit-laden, densely sweet item. While it is worth a try, its value to this writer lies more in the nostalgic associations invoked than for the pure sensation of its taste.