I recently had a chat with Amanda Kendle from NotABallerina about what it’s like to travel at Christmas, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all the different customs we have around the world for this time of the year. Being a traditionally Western concept, it’s unusual to experience Christmas in a country that doesn’t identify as Christian. Everything is random, nothing is familiar. What always stands out to me is the food, and how differently we experience this time of year through the foods we eat around the world.
The concept of Christmas from my Western childhood was one of familial strength, lots of presents under the tree and a big BBQ lunch in the Australian sunshine. I have very fond memories of waking up early to find masses of presents under our tree. My mum would go overboard on the gifting to make up for our family being on the other side of the country, and then we would have a huge lunch of roast chicken, roast lamb, roast veg and salad, BBQ seafood and cold ham. Traditional Christmas pudding with custard or pavlova would finish us off before we would all go for a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes we would be joined by out of town family, or by friends and neighbours but mostly it was just us.
Since my mother passed away, I’ve made a new tradition of being away from home at Christmas. There is really just myself and my sister now, and she has her partner’s family to have the big traditional Christmas with. I no longer have any interest in the traditional Christmas of my childhood – the magic of Christmas seems to have died with my mother. Last year I spent Christmas in London though, having about as traditional a Christmas as you can get. I’ve spent Christmas in Kenya, in the Amboseli National Park with Mt Kilimanjaro as our backdrop. And this year I will be spending Christmas in Sri Lanka, probably chowing down on a delicious curry (or ten!)
Food is something that is so intrinsically tied to our traditions, especially around the holidays. So it got me thinking about how different foods and cultures are represented at various holiday times. In creating my worldwide adventure below, I’ve tried to stick to countries I’ve been to in the past or will go to very soon. Luckily, I’ve been to a lot of different places so I had plenty of choice!
Let’s start in my home country. There are so many ways we do Christmas differently, mostly because we have Christmas in the middle of our summer period. Instead of going for a big hot meal, we will attempt to cool ourselves down with salads and a BBQ, or fresh seafood. Cold ham, turkey and leftover cold roast chicken are also popular. Dessert is usually either pavlova (pictured above), trifle or Christmas pudding – a remnant of our English colonial history.
Our northern cousins have the benefits of a cold and snowy Christmas, and therefore get to celebrate with all the normal inclusions like mulled wine, hot apple cider, hot doughnuts, gingerbread and big roast turkeys. I have it on good authority though, that in the French provinces in Eastern Canada they also celebrate with Yule Log (or bûche de Noël as it is known in France). Made of sponge cake and shaped to resemble an actual Yule log, it looks insanely delicious and I will be hunting some down when I spend Christmas in Canada (added to the bucketlist!)
I would love to spend Christmas in Cuba, and I’ll have to do it soon before it changes too much. Sitting around with a cup of Crema de Vie, or Cuban eggnog sounds completely decadent. Made with condensed milk, sugar syrup, lemon rind, cinnamon and egg yolk and then add the obligatory dose of rum.
Prague is one of my favourite cities in the world, and I was pretty surprised to learn that the big traditional Christmas dinner is actually celebrated on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day like we do it in Australia. Czech families will gather around the table for vánoční rybí polévka, a kind of fish soup usually made with carp and served with a potato salad. Nothing is eaten until dinner time, and it is said that those who do not break the fasting time will see a golden pig on the wall.
France is home to some of the most decadently rich food in the world, so it should come as no surprise that the French take this to another level at Christmastime. Along with what seem relatively normal traditions of roasted turkey stuffed with chestnuts, or nougat, or the obviously bottles of Champagne, I love the idea of the Thirteen desserts from the Provence region. Because why stop at one, am I right? Christmas dinner will end with 13 different desserts, each representing Christ and his 12 apostles. The desserts will be set out on Christmas Eve, and will remain out until at least three days after Christmas. The desserts themselves will differ from family to family, but the number will always be the same. Always 13.
We woke up this morning to the tragic news of the attack on the Berlin Christmas Market, so I was hesitant to include Germany in my list. But some of my favourite Christmas lead-in times have been spent in Germany, sipping hot chocolate or gluhwein and munching on gingerbread and chocolate. It’s not surprising that Germany shares some food traditions with their French, Polish and Czech neighbours, but something that is 100% German is the GingerBread House. Often decorated with candy and icing, these miniature houses made from gingerbread are a not so subtle nod to the children’s story Hansel and Gretel.
Oh Iceland. Beautiful scenery, wintery panoramas. The Northern Lights. What more could you ask for during a white Christmas? How about a nice roasted ptarmigan? You heard me. Instead of the traditional, but hard-to-find-in-Iceland turkey Icelanders have been roasting local ptarmigans for years. Generally it will be served with dishes that are similar to those in Finland, Norway and Sweden. Pickled red cabbage and caramelised potato are popular.
I’m always curious to see how Christmas is done in countries that aren’t traditionally Christian, but have some history of Western colonialism – like India. With a rich English heritage, India has held onto a love of cricket but it seems that not many of the dishes traditionally served at Christmas give any nod to their history with England. In Goa you will find the popular bebinca, which is usually only eaten in the Christmas season but around the rest of the country it seems that it is mostly business as usual when it comes to food.
I have Italian heritage, my grandmother was born in the far north or Italy, near the border of Switzerland. As a result, my childhood Christmases featured lasagne and panattone, a kind of sweet fruit bread loaf. I still make a panattone every year and gift it to my grandmother, which I hope she appreciates given how long it takes to make!
Japan has become a pretty popular place for Australians to travel to at Christmas, the main reason being that it’s the most accessible snow at that time of year. It’s not as far as Canada or Europe, and can actually be cheaper for us to get to during the busy holiday season. I’ve heard many hilarious stories from people who have spent Christmas in Japan, since it’s not something that is traditionally celebrated but the Japanese are so polite they will go above and beyond to make their Western guests comfortable. A friend once told me that because turkey is unheard of in Japan, KFC is popular at Christmas. It’s so popular in fact that stores will take orders two months in advance to meet demand!
I think it would be sensational to spend Christmas in Mexico – all the tacos! Being a country with deep Christian values, and a definite understanding of how to throw a party I could see how Christmas would be a huge deal for Mexicans. Ensalada de Noche Buena is a traditional Christmas Eve salad made from oranges and grapefruit, mixed with radish, lettuce and a creamy dressing. I’d also like to drink all of the champurrado, a Mexican hot chocolate which is also served during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Polish food is simple food done really well. Christmas is no exception, starting with the traditional entree of barszcz, a kind of beetroot soup served with small dumplings. Pierogi is also very common, usually filled with cottage cheese and potato and served with sauerkraut and mushrooms. Main meals are hearty and intended to warm you up, things like cabbage rolls and thick stews are very popular. For dessert indulge on Łamaniec, a type of hard pancake that is soaked in warm milk with poppy seeds. This is especially popular in the eastern parts of the country.
Have you spent Christmas in a country with traditions that are far removed from what is familiar for you? I’d love to hear about it – leave your story in the comments below.
You can find out more about my chat with Amanda on her podcast – The Thoughtful Travel Podcast, available on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.