Many countries throughout the world have taken to giving common dishes a festive twist by adding green or red food coloring. Mexico, of course, has particular talent with incorporating red and green into food and it’s no surprise they excel with Christmas Tamales. But this tradition goes far beyond some festive colors and beyond just Mexico. Tamales are staples from the indigenous peoples of the Americas - North, Central, and South - tracing all the way back to around 8000 BC or earlier. These portable meals of masa (corn dough) and various ingredients wrapped and cooked in steam have held spiritual significance for countless generations and are incorporated into numerous Christmas and Las Posadas celebrations (honoring Mary and Joseph’s journey for shelter).
Chocolate may have taken the world by storm and has definitely made itself a star in many winter holiday recipes, for example in chocolate Hanukkah gelt (coins) or hot chocolate beverages around the world, but the origin of chocolate is Mesoamerica - the ancient Americas where it was cultivated into beverages both hot and cold. The Mayans developed Champurrado, a thick corn-based hot chocolate drink with anise and raw cane sugar, that is popular as ever during the winter holiday season. It is also sometimes referred to as Chocolate Atole as it often contains another favorite drink of the season that dates back just as far - Atole, a rich hot beverage thickened with masa harina (corn flour) and flavored with brown sugar, cinnamon, and occasionally topped with fruit. We recommend you try the many variations of hot chocolate throughout Latin America because they have a gloriously long history of perfecting some truly delicious recipes.
Now, corn and chocolate may be iconic of the Americas, but so - quite frankly - is squash. The fall harvest in North America brings a bounty of autumn and winter squashes and, as many can attest, the US in particular tends to go wild for pumpkins and anything pumpkin-flavored - especially as part of family food traditions for the holiday season. And while Pumpkin Pie is a classic holiday dessert, the dish’s flavors of pumpkin and spices have famously found their way into a plethora of other foods and beverages. Pumpkin Spice Lattes, in fact, have become more than a drink phenomenon (both hot and cold), they have become a flavor in their own right with pumpkin, spices, and espresso being incorporated into PSL-themed foods like seasonal flavored ice cream or gelato. Other winter squashes are starting to see an increase in popularity during the holiday season as well, such as Butternut Squash, Acorn Squash, and Spaghetti Squash. An interesting note, also, is that while the classic Sugar Pumpkin Squash is by far the most well known and used winter squash, there is actually also a Japanese pumpkin alternative called Kabocha.
Asia and the Pacific Islands
A winter holiday season food craze that is unique to Japan is fried chicken and strawberry shortcake. Christmas is largely a commercial opportunity in Japan rather than a religious or national holiday. So the popular food traditions that coincide with the timing of this holiday are due to the particularly successful advertising campaigns of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Fujiya (one of the most well known Japanese cake shops). The seasonal cravings of these foods has reached holiday rush proportions, though, as many KFC Christmas orders in Japan have to be placed well in advance - sometimes months even.
The Philippines likes to go all out with elaborate holiday feasts and formal dinners at midnight for Noche Buena. They usually feature ham, sometimes even a whole roasted pig (lechon), and queso de bola (a local variety of Edam cheese). In the days leading up to Noche Buena, many church masses are held and local delicacies of seasonal rice cakes are sold outside the churches.
China celebrates Christmas as a typical non-religious commercialized holiday for gathering with family or friends and has a unique tradition of exchanging apples for Christmas. Píngguǒ (the Mandarin word for apple) and Ping’an Ye (the Mandarin word for Christmas Eve, which means peaceful or quiet evening, as from the carol Silent Night) sound similar, so many Chinese people have taken to giving their loved ones a specially wrapped or packaged apple as a heartfelt message of peace, goodwill, and affection.
Christmas Pudding is a well-known and famous holiday tradition in the United Kingdom, originating from Medieval England, and incorporated through many countries around the world influenced by the British Empire. The main ingredients are sugar, treacle, suet, spices, and many variations of dried fruits depending on the recipe. The making and presentation of this classic Christmas dessert includes much fanfare, with each member of the household stirring the unfinished pudding and making a wish, and when the pudding is done, it’s doused with brandy (or other alcohol) which is set alight with fire. The Christmas pudding is often accompanied with either a hard sauce, cream, ice cream, or custard. A special point of interest to note: the Royal family recently revealed their Christmas pudding recipe, so if you’re looking to indulge in an extravagant dessert this season or are simply curious, we suggest you search it out.
Mince pies are another common staple of winter foods and holiday spreads throughout the UK and Ireland. It is also known as mincemeat pies because mincemeat originally always contained meat in addition to the fruit and spices, though more modern recipes contain beef suet or vegetable shortening instead. Many Irish families leave out mince pie and a pint of Guinness beer for Santa rather than milk and cookies.
And, speaking of cookies, Greece’s winter holiday celebrations traditionally include melomakarona, also known as honey cookies (topped with ground nuts), as a sweet treat for the season.
This is also the season of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, where grand meals of seafood are enjoyed in Sicily and southern Italy for Christmas celebrations. For New Year’s Eve festivities, on the other hand, the long-standing tradition of eating lentils means plenty of lentil and vegetable stews. Lentils symbolize prosperity and hopes for good fortune in the new year.
And of course, throughout all of Europe, you can find street stalls and carts selling an absolutely iconic winter holiday snack - roasted chestnuts.
There’s definitely so many more holiday food traditions and countries that I missed. And there’s simply no way I could have squeezed them all into this 1,000 word article. But we would love to hear about them! So, if you have a seasonal winter holiday food tradition that wasn’t mentioned, or you have a favorite recipe for one that was mentioned, share it with us in a comment below.