In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, if you sit down with your family on the evening of 24 December to a dinner of turkey stuffed with chestnuts and conclude your meal with a gourmet Yule log cake, you may think you know all there is to know about Christmas traditions and have paid due tribute them. Yet the food on the Christmas table varies widely depending on whether you are in Latin America, the Antilles, northern or southern Europe, Asia or Australia. Aside from the culinary delights we enjoy around the Christmas tree, there are many other Christmas customs, some of which may prove surprising. The festivities are of course related to Christianity, which has spread more or less all over the world, however, they are also linked to pagan customs. Even before the Christian era, the Romans dedicated a festival to Saturn in the depths of winter. Why not take a short tour of Christmas customs and traditions alive today?
In Greenland, on Christmas Eve people tuck into narwhal fat. The narwhal is an Arctic cetacean and this delicacy is enjoyed with sea salt and rye bread. The men serve the food.
In Iceland, rock ptarmigan grouse graces the table on Christmas Eve, while smoked lamb is the preferred dish on 25 December. Legend has it that thirteen days before Christmas, thirteen goblins come down from the mountains to the towns to slip presents into children's shoes.
In Sweden, pickled fish is an essential feature, as is rice pudding in which an almond has been hidden. If the almond is sweet, the person who finds it will soon be married. On the other hand, if the almond is bitter, the person will remain single. The Swedes also feast on ham that has been lightly pickled in brine before being boiled and roasted, and on a gratin of potatoes with anchovies, a dish known as ‘Jansson's temptation’.
In the UK, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas pudding, which is prepared several weeks in advance. Every family member has to stir the mix, in which a coin is concealed to bring good luck.
In Ireland, an ancient tradition calls for bread and milk to be left outside the door, which remains unlocked on Christmas Eve so that Mary and Joseph or any traveller wishing to take a rest may find shelter. Every family makes biscuits with caraway seeds and three different Christmas puddings which are eaten on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and on Twelfth Night.
In Germany, preparations for the festive season start on 6 December. The agenda for the days before Christmas includes making spiced gingerbread and biscuits and buying large quantities of decorations. Many families decorate their houses with several Christmas trees. "Stollen is the traditional cake. Originating from Dresden, it is a kind of long loaf containing preserved fruit, raisins,spices, rum and marzipan and covered with icing sugar. The shape of this cake dates back to Mediaeval times and represents the Christ child in his swaddling clothes"1.