Move over, Santa; Charles Dickens is really the man of the modern North American Christmas. The 19th century English novelist helped change the image of Christmas from a day for drunken roistering shunned by pious folk into the family-friendly, food-focused, ho-ho-ho kind of holiday we all know and love.
“When I think of food at Christmas, I am struck by how influential Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ is,” says Bruce David Forbes, author of “Christmas: A Candid History” and religious studies professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Take, for example, Dickens’ decision to have a reformed Scrooge send an enormous turkey to the Cratchits rather than the usual goose. That deliberate choice still echoes on dinner tables around the world.
Dickens was consciously trying to change, to revitalize, the Christmas of his day, Forbes says. That’s fitting, since it always has been a holiday under construction. Rooted in pagan midwinter festivals that long predate the birth of Jesus, the holiday has grown almost organically around the world. Along the way it has adopted the flavors and foods of each locale.
The process is continuing. Just look to Japan, where KFC at Christmas has become so popular that people reserve their buckets (decorated with a picture of Colonel Sanders sporting a Santa cap) up to a month in advance, according to Japan Today, an online newspaper. Or consider the lutefisk (made from dried unsalted cod) served by those of Scandinavian descent. Or the feast of seven fishes in Italian-American homes.
Follow our world tour and add some of these traditions to your holiday table.
Sausages are essential accompaniments for a roast turkey dinner. Wrap chipolatas or fresh, breakfast-style link sausages, in streaky bacon (Brit-speak for American bacon), place on a baking sheet and cook in a 375-degree oven until golden, about 30 minutes. — Johnny Acton, Nick Sandler, “Duchy Originals Cookbook.”
Toast the season with ponche crema, an egg nog-like drink (It is also the name of a cream liqueur brand in Venezuela). Blend 12 eggs, 3 12-ounce cans evaporated milk, 2 14-ounce cans condensed milk, 1 cup rum, 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour over cracked ice. Add a dash of Angostura bitters. Grate fresh nutmeg over the top. — “Culinaria the Caribbean: A Culinary Discovery”
Cap Christmas Eve dinner with a fruit compote traditional to Basque country. Heat 2 pounds each tart apples and pears (peeled, cored, cut into small wedges) to a boil in a stockpot with 1 quart water. Reduce heat; add 1½ cups sugar, 1 cinnamon stick, juice of ½ lemon. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring. Meanwhile, heat 1½ cups red Rioja wine, ½ cup prunes, ⅓ cup each raisins and dried apricots to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat; simmer until the fruits plump and soften. Stir mixture into the apples and pears. Simmer until apples and pears are soft, 10 minutes. Serve warm or cold. Makes: 10 servings — Teresa Barrenechea with Mary Goodbody, “The Basque Table”
It is said that candy canes were created in 1670 by the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, who gave them to the children in the choir to pacify them during the long Christmas services. He modeled them after the shape of the crooks carried by the shepherds who, according to the story in Luke, were the first to hear the good tidings of Jesus’ birth. It was more than 200 years before peppermint was added to the sugar canes. — James and Kay Salter, “Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days.”
“Posadas” means lodgings in Spanish and refers to a ceremonial re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s quest for a place to stay in Bethlehem. In Mexico, people dressed as the Holy Family walk from house to house until they’re finally let in to the home chosen for a party, says Iliana de la Vega, Latin cuisines specialist at The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Foods of the Americas in San Antonio. The party must-have is a pinata stuffed with sweets and nuts.
Thirteen desserts representing Jesus and the 12 disciples are a holiday tradition in Provence. The first four desserts represent monastic orders that rely on charity: Raisins (Dominicans), dried figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites) and hazelnuts (Augustinians). These are followed by walnuts and another dried fruit, usually dates or prunes. Candied fruits or guava paste figure next, followed by seasonal fruits: Apples and pears, then either melons, grapes or oranges. Toward the end, there’s nougat and calisson, a French candy. The 13th dessert is the pompe de Noel or pompe a l’huile, a sweetened bread flavored with orange or lemon zest. — “Culinaria France.”
Pandoro, a tall, star-shaped cake with rich flavor and heady aroma, is often sliced horizontally and reassembled to look like a Christmas tree, writes Francine Segan in “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35). Segan offers a version with an orange liqueur or rum syrup, layered with mascarpone and cream and decorated with candied cherries.