Ever wonder how turkey came to represent holiday meals in America? Or why fruitcake is a tradition when no one likes it? Holiday food traditions in the United States and around the world reflect the culture and history of the people who live there.
A Turkey or Two
Thanksgiving in America means turkey. How did turkey, pie and stuffing become the tradition when the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of venison, corn and oysters? Turkeys were abundant in early America and they probably became the main course because they were big enough to feed a crowd. Benjamin Franklin petitioned that the turkey become the symbol of the United States rather than the eagle. He deemed turkeys more “respectable.” That didn’t work out, but the importance of turkey on Thanksgiving and other holidays can’t be denied. Traditionally, holiday turkeys are baked to perfection in the oven. A new trend, however, is deep-fried turkey. A common way to cook the bird in the south, deep-frying turkeys in an outdoor fryer filled with cottonseed oil is becoming increasingly popular across the rest of the country. Anyway you cook it, turkey at Thanksgiving is here to stay.
In the United States, Santa gets to eat cookies and drink milk at every stop. In England, however, he gets sherry and mince pie. It’s just a small glass of sherry, but how many small glasses of sherry can one man drink? Perhaps the effects are neutralized by the mince pie.
Fruitcake is the butt of many a Christmas joke, but fruitcakes date back to ancient times. Long ago, fruitcake filled with nuts and dried food was a symbol of prosperity. It was often served at celebrations and important events, and eventually found its way to mailboxes everywhere.
Christmas Eve in Greece is a cross between Halloween and Christmas. Children walk through the streets singing carols and collecting sweets. Holy water is sprinkled throughout the home to ward off mythical goblins that spoil milk and spook horses. Christmas Day is quieter. Families attend church and spend time at home with loved ones, with Christ’s bread being central to the celebration. The loaf is decorated with candies or walnuts, as well as items that reflect the family profession.
Potato pancakes called latkes are traditional in Jewish homes during Hanukkah. The pancakes are cooked in oil to commemorate the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, where tradition has it that a small flask of oil keep the flame burning for eight days.
Easter and Eggs
How did the egg come to symbolize Easter? Universally a symbol of new life and fertility, the theory is that eggs at Easter became popular as a celebratory gesture because most people abstained from eating eggs during Lent.
Easter in Russia is full of the symbols of life. The traditional Easter soup includes eggs, chickpeas and green leaves to represent rebirth, fertility and the coming of spring. The Russian Easter also includes a pyramid of soft cheese, butter, nut and fruit that symbolizes the tomb of Jesus.
Winter Solstice in Korea
The shortest day of the year is cause for celebration in Korea. Made with red beans and balls of rice, red bean paste porridge is the soup of the day. Red beans keep bad spirits away and rice balls symbolize new life. Koreans believe that cold weather on the Winter Solstice means better health and fortune for the coming year.
India’s Diwali Celebration
India is not the only country that celebrates Diwali, but India does it in the sweetest way. Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, marks the end of the fiscal year. Merchants close their books out for the year and everyone celebrates. Milk-based sweets are eaten and shared with family and friends. The holiday is also a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year brings thoughts of brightly-colored dragons and parades. This two-week long spring festival is the time for eating long noodles for a long life and spring rolls that symbolize wealth. Lettuce wraps and oranges are also common and represent rising fortune and wealth.