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Bon Appetit - Just Plain Good Food

Christmas Eve and Traditional Meals

Published December 23rd, 2014 in Bon Appetit - Just Plain Good Food

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

Tis the season to be jolly, and eat and eat and drink ourselves Merry. Many of us consider mountains of cheese, crackers, summer sausage, cookies, pies, bread and candy – holiday foods, along with ham, turkey, roast beef, potatoes….. but is it really traditional?

The idea of what do others eat on Christmas eve, came to me after reading a Facebook post from a friend who relocated to the Czech Republic last summer. I knew fish is a common food, served at Christmas eve dinners for many Catholics, Episcopalians and other denominations; but “thwacking the Carp” had not entered my head, till reading Susan’s post on “buying your Christmas eve dinner carp, take it home and keep it in the bath tub till Christmas eve and thwack it yourself, or have the fish vendor do it for you.”

Ok, I admit it I laughed when I read it, and am still laughing over the idea, of big carp fish, swimming around in the city of Prague apartments and homes, waiting for the Christmas “thwack”. Oh whatever will the visiting relatives think, when they get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom!

So what is it folks in the Czech Republic do with this boney white fish? Christmas Eve used to be a day of fasting in the Czech Republic. Throughout the day, people would eat very little or nothing, but everyone was expected to eat until they were stuffed with food in the evening. This tradition is still kept today. The main meal served during the day is usually a gold-colored sweet Christmas bread. The gastronomic peak of the day has always been the festive dinner following midnight mass. Its importance to the people is usually expressed by a rich variety of meals, with symbolic meaning in medieval times.

The Christmas table used to be full of products the people had grown themselves the previous year. There were meals such as black kuba made from mushrooms, groats and garlic; cooked and dried fruit; or lentils and peas. According to tradition, eating legumes was to secure the expansion of family wealth. Another symbol of Czech Christmas, and an indispensable part of the festive table, is the Christmas carp. The Czechs traditionally believe, if they put one of the carp scales into their purses, they will have enough money for the following year. With the economy the way it is – who am I to scoff at tradition! Bring me a carp.

The rest of the Christmas holidays, Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th); do not have the same strict festive character as seen on Christmas Eve. The choice and variety of the meals is varied due to regional and family traditions. On St. Stephen’s Day, the tradition has it, that roast turkey, goose, or duck is served, as well as any other kind of meat.

Tamales, a gift from the Aztecs – yuhhmmm! This part is for my Great Aunt and a local friend who makes their own Tamales for friends and family – boy I’m glad we are friends…

As it turns out Christmas just isn’t Christmas in Texas without Tamales, but is that the end of the story? Noche Buena — Christmas Eve — is one of the most festive dinners of the year in Mexico and for Mexican Americans. A Mexican Christmas dinner is abundant and varied, with foods that range from tamales to turkey and tejocote (the fruit of the Hawthorne tree).

For nine days before Christmas, friends and neighbors get together for posadas — reenactments of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem. They always end up at the home of whatever neighbor lets them in, whereupon piñatas are broken, fruit and candy are devoured by the children, and Mexican punch, tamales and fritters called buñuelos are enjoyed by all. Now I have to tell you, these folks know how to have a good time, I love going to church and hearing the mariachi bands warm up for mass and seeing the little children all very well behaved in their holiday best. Such joy over the coming of our Lord.

Most often in modern day Mexico, a turkey is the main attraction, no matter what regional dishes (Tamales come from the Northern part of Mexico) accompany it. Stuffed with either ground meat, olives and raisins, or with a chestnut dressing, the Christmas turkey is a European preparation of a New World bird.

The bacalao, or dried, reconstituted codfish traditionally served as a first course, is also European in origin and can be exquisitely well prepared.

Many Douglas County residents come from sturdy Scandinavian ancestry. So for the loyal Beacon readers of this heritage: For most Norwegians the traditional “Julaften” (Christmas Eve being the name of the whole day) will consist of having a lovely breakfast with your family. Norwegians are traditional when it comes to Christmas food. The top pick for Christmas eve dinner, roasted pork ribs (or belly) and dried mutton ribs along with other traditional foods. A huge 2012 opinion pole in Norway, reflected, almost as popular are trout/ salmon and turkey. A majority of the population feel it is important to eat traditional Norwegian Christmas food.

On Christmas Day – Norwegians put time and thought into the Christmas breakfasts. The family has time to sit down at the table for many hours and enjoy themselves, and “breakfast” often lasts all day. Something like a smorgasbord with different sorts of freshly baked bread, cheese, egg, ham, and pickled herring.

No matter where I looked, I found Christmas is about wonderful foods, family and friends. The gift of hospitality, laughter and joy – Not about a gift you don’t need or can’t afford to buy.

To a Blessed Traditional Christmas and all of it’s wonderful flavor!

A Mexican Christmas dinner: tamales, turkey, tejocotes