Alternative Christmas Dinners from Around the World

Alternative Christmas Dinners

It seems like our choice of Christmas dinner can say so many things about us. Each year, January through November, my grandmother mentioned our English and Welsh heritage once, maybe twice. Living in the Southern US and descended from West Virginian coal miners, we knew that having a British Isles background wasn’t exactly a rarity. When the time came around for her annual Christmas Dinner, however, she was suddenly quite boastful of her heritage, and was adamant that we will not have a stereotypical American Christmas. It was time for a traditional Christmas dinner of standing rib roast of beef, Yorkshire pudding, and potatoes, finished off with a trifle.

Christmas dinner preparations 1931
By Mears, E.H.; Contributor(s): The Queenslander [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whether you’re an ancestral-opportunist like my grandmother, or just someone who is tired of the same old Christmas dinner they’ve had for years, these Christmas dinners from around the world will be sure to change up your meal-time. These foods vary drastically from country to country, and can be closely linked to the particular rituals and traditions that are carried out during the holiday. You’ll be saying “Hyvää Joulua!”, or “Nadolig Llawen!” and eating Pavlova or drinking glögi in no time!

It’s almost impossible to talk about Christmas without mentioning Finland—according to Finns, Santa Claus lives in Lapland! A theme park called “Christmas Land” is situated near where they say he lives, delighting Finns and tourists alike. Needless to say, the Christmas holiday is very important to Finns. On Christmas Eve, rice pudding and plum juice are consumed in the morning, followed by tree decorating. That night, a large display of food called a Joulupöytä, or “Yule Table,” is set up for the traditional Christmas dinner. The Joulupöytä consists of foods such as Christmas ham and mustard, salted salmon and whitefish, various types of pickled herring, and an assortment of casseroles. Liver, potato, rutabaga, carrot, and turkey are just a few of the ingredients you might find in the number of casseroles on this table. For dessert, Finns might have gingerbread, rice pudding or porridge topped with cinnamon, sugar, and milk. Glögi, or glogg, is a mulled wine and quite popular in Scandinavia; it is drunk along with Christmas beer, red wine, or even sour milk!

If you’ve ever wished for more desserts at Christmas, then I would suggest moving to Provence! This region in France practices a tradition called the “Thirteen Desserts,” in which Christmas dinner ends with not one, not two, but thirteen dessert items. Representing the twelve apostles and Jesus Christ, these desserts are set out on Christmas Eve and will remain on the table for three days. As different regions of France have different types of terrain and harvest yield, Christmas dinner varies as well. These meals can include anything from oysters, smoked salmon, and foie gras, to goose, crëpes, and chestnut-stuffed turkey.

Other desserts from France include le pain calendeau, a Christmas bread from the south of France, part of which traditionally goes to a poor person, and the bûche de Nõel, a log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. But nothing says going overboard for Christmas like thirteen desserts!

Some countries historically affiliated with colonial English rule still maintain a great deal of English tradition in their Christmas dinners, but at the same time, some dishes are created that are fully unique to their country. For example, in New Zealand, a lighter-than-air, meringue-based dessert called Pavlova is served. Have you ever heard of the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova? It is believed that the dessert was created after she toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. Pavlova is made from beaten egg whites and corn flour, which gives the dessert a crisp outer shell and a soft, marshmallow-like inside.

Additionally, Pavlova is often topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit such as kiwi, passionfruit, or strawberries. Although Pavlova is eaten throughout the year, especially during the summertime, a Christmastime Pavlova can be topped with Chantilly cream and pomegranate seeds to display a holiday festiveness.

Photo By Gui Seiz (Flickr Creative Commons)

Fish soup is a common Christmas Eve or Christmas Day meal in many Eastern European countries. In the Czech Republic, for example, Christmas Fish Soup is Vánocní Rybí Polévka, is made with carp, onion, and other vegetables, and is eaten on Christmas Eve. In Hungary, hot and spicy “Fisherman’s Soup,” or halászlé, served with lots and lots of paprika. In Poland, fish soup is served in addition to zupa grzybowa, a forest mushroom soup, and żurek, a soup made of soured rye flour and meat (usually boiled pork sausage). Carp plays a big role in Christmas dinners across Poland, as well as other Eastern European countries.

Here it can be served as a fillet with potato salad, in aspic, or in soups. Pierogi are also served at this meal as well, filled with white cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and forest mushrooms. A Polish Christmas can’t be complete without poppy seed cakes called makowiec, or a jam-filled pastry called mazurek.

Moving West, the common Christmas fish moves from Carp to Codfish—more specifically, to bacalhau in Portuguese. Technically, the word “bacalhau” simply means “codfish,”  although it is more often than not dried and salted. Along with cabrito assado and borrego assado (roasted goat and lamb) and polvo cozido (boiled octopus), a number of variant “King” or “Queen” cakes are baked. Bolo Rei is the original “King Cake,” and is a gorgeous, colorfully decorated fruitcake. Bolo-Rei Escangalhado, or “Broken King Cake” is a traditional Bolo Rei with cinnamon and doce de gila (chilacayote jam). Bolo-Rei de Chocolate is the chocolate version of the King Cake, and Bolo-Rainha is a “Queen Cake” that has only nuts, raisins and almonds. Finish these cakes off with vinho quente, or eggnog made from boiled wine, egg yolk, sugar, and cinnamon, and you’ve got one tasty Christmas!

Although we’ve only just scratched the surface of Christmas dinners from around the world, these dishes should give you some ideas of the variety of traditions that exist in other countries. Whether you celebrate on Christmas Eve or Day, whether you have fish as a soup, or salted and dried, or whether you name your dish after a famous Russian ballerina, you are sure to create wonderful memories with your family as you try out new Christmas traditions!