The month of December evokes a sort of magical holiday spirit within all of us. With all the different celebrations this month, it’s easy to see why there is so much to look forward to. Here is a look at some December holidays, and the dishes that accompany them.
Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish celebration, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees (Jewish rebels) over Syrian-Greek rulers and soldiers in Jerusalem. The Maccabees wanted to purify the Temple in Jerusalem by burning oil in the menorah for eight days, but discovered they only had one day’s worth of oil. The oil miraculously lasted eight days. Every year, usually beginning late November to early December, one candle is lit each day in the menorah until all eight candles are lit. Spinning the dreidel is a popular Hanukkah game and gift exchanges during each day of the celebration also occur.
As oil is the highlight of this holiday, many traditional foods are fried. The most symbolic foods are latkes, pancakes made from potatoes and onions, and sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts topped off with confectioner’s sugar. A typical Hanukkah table usually includes Challah bread (an egg bread that is usually shaped into a braid), rugelach (a rolled pastry filled with anything from raisins to chocolate), kugel (egg noodle casserole) and brisket. Chocolate gelt (basically a chocolate coin) is also a popular treat for children.
December 8 is an important day to Buddhists around the world, where they celebrate the day Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Many Buddhists meditate and celebrate on Bodhi Day and for 30 days after. To get into the Bodhi Day spirit, Buddhists string multicoloured lights around their home. The lights represent the enlightenment, and the different colours represent the many paths to enlightenment. A Sacred Fig tree with symbolic ornaments is another common decoration. Traditional Bodhi Day food depends mainly on which country the celebration is occurring, anywhere from Japan to India. However, rice and milk is a very common meal because that is what the Buddha ate to help regain his strength. To appeal to kids, many Buddhists also make cookies in the shape of trees and leaves.
Arguably the most celebrated holiday around the world, December 25 is a day of family, friends and feasting. For most religious people, Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. However, it has become a well-loved secular celebration for many to get into the spirit of gift giving, decorating, and dinner celebrations. Santa Claus and his team of reindeers and elves have become cultural icons tied to this green and red holiday.
Since Christmas is celebrated everywhere, it is difficult to pin down one traditional dish. While a typical North American Christmas dinner is very similar to a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes and gravy, a Japanese Christmas dinner’s main protein is usually chicken. Turkey is unheard of in Japan, and KFC chicken Christmas orders are sometimes made up to two months before. Christmas cookies, cakes, candy canes, gingerbread houses and hot chocolate are iconic treats in North America and Europe. However, in South American countries, buñuelos, fried dough balls with sweet fillings, are very common treats. What almost all Christmas tables have in common are the family-friendly style of dishes served for everyone to share and enjoy.
This weeklong celebration is predominantly celebrated in the Western world’s African community. Beginning December 26 to January 1, celebrants honour their African heritage and traditions with feasts and gift-giving. Many of those who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas. It is common to see Christmas decorations alongside colourful African art, kente cloths and a kinara, the symbolic candleholder.
Kwanza celebrates a mix of old world tradition and Western culture. Dishes include peanut soup, okra greens, desserts with sweet potatoes (pies, dougnuts and tarts), and appetizer dishes with beans.
New Year’s Eve
That final December holiday falls on the very last day of the month. A non-religious celebration, New Year’s Eve is celebrated by every country and culture that follows the Gregorian calendar to ring in the New Year. A very social and laidback celebration, New Year’s Eve has become highly publicized and televised around the world with many large outdoor social gatherings in well-known places such as Times Square.
While New Year’s Eve is synonymous to heavy drinking and partying, there are also many symbolic dishes enjoyed around the world. In many South American countries and in Spain, it is tradition to eat 12 grapes or lentils to represent good luck for each month of the year. In Turkey, there are gifts exchanged with large gatherings with family and friends. A special pilaf dish with currants, pimento and dill is served alongside baklava, borek (fried cheese pastry), dolma (stuffed vegetables) and boza (a low-alcohol content malt drink). Many other celebrants around the world feast on their countries’ own traditional main dishes, sweets and delicacies.