Victorian ideas from the 1860s inspired many of the ways the world celebrates Christmas today. Christmas cards weren’t given widely until then; the tradition didn’t spread to the United States until the early 1970s. Until the late nineteenth century when turkey took center stage, the Christmas feast focused on goose, chicken, or roast beef. It was also common to see people caroling door-to-door. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees also came from this era — it began in Germany, spread to America by way of German settlers, and made its way to England in 1840 due to Prince Albert.
Wondering what the rest of the world is cooking up to celebrate Christmas and spread the yuletide cheer? The Daily Meal is here to take you to Christmas tables around the globe to get a taste of their traditional Christmas meals.
Additional reporting by Fabiana Santana.
Temperature highs mean “Christmas in July” isn’t too off for Australians, as most schools’ summer holidays are from mid-December to early February. After opening presents, Christmas morning means a breakfast of ham and eggs, then attending church, followed by a traditional midday feast. Some families grill on the barbeque, some have picnics of turkey, ham, and salad at the beach, and some favor a traditional British Christmas meal including roast turkey and plum pudding.
Christmas in Chile is big event. Families start praying a novena nine days before December 25 and attend Midnight Mass on Christmas to celebrate Christ’s birth. Afterward, even if it is 2 a.m., a huge dinner with typical Chilean foods is served. Think oven-roasted turkey, cazuela de ave (a special chicken soup), rice, puddings, and the traditional pan de Pascua, a sweet, fruit-based cake that is also left out for Santa when the kids go to bed. A traditional eggnog drink called cola de mono or "monkey's tail," made from coffee, milk, liquor, cinnamon, and sugar, is also served.
The last two weeks before Christmas are known as the great baking period for the Danish. Everyone’s favorite holiday cakes, breads, and confections are made using traditional family recipes. Think ginger snaps, gingerbread hearts, marzipan, fudge, crystal fruit, and more. While many could make a meal out of Danish desserts, there's plenty more on the holiday table — especially beer. Every year on the first Friday in November, Tuborg releases its new Christmas beer. Called Julebryg in Danish, the annual Christmas brew is darker and stronger than traditional lager, and its release marks the unofficial start to the Christmas season. For Christmas dinner, a typical Danish meal consists of roast pork — maybe a duck if you’re feeling contemporary — with boiled potatoes, red cabbage, and gravy. The traditional Christmas dessert is risengrød, or rice pudding, with a whole peeled almond hidden inside. The finder of the nut gets a gift. The dessert is commonly served Christmas Eve, too, with leftovers set out for Santa.
A French Christmas dinner, Le Réveillon, will be full of foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon, and roasted capon. Depending on the region, you might get a chestnut-stuffed turkey or possibly a goose (in Alsace, for example), but no matter where you are, the bûche de Noël is the country’s traditional Christmas dessert. It’s a log-shaped cake slathered in buttercream and decorated with Christmas figurines. The cake’s history stretches back to the Iron Age when European families would burn logs decorated with holly and ivy to celebrate the end of the winter season. As the years went on, hearths became smaller, so burning a log wasn’t an option, but cooking a cake in the shape of one was.
If you’re in Provence, be prepared for a big dessert. The 13 desserts of Christmas, or Le Treize Desserts de Noel, are meant to represent Jesus and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper and are a staple at Southern French households. The treats are set out all at once and each guest must have a bit of each one. Don't worry, though: many of the 13 (the exact items vary from household to household) will be simple dried fruit or nuts.
In Germany, Christmas traditions span the whole month of December. Four weeks before December 25, children make Advent wreaths, while each Sunday they light a candle on the wreath and eat Christmas treats, such as pfeffernüsse cookies, which are made with warm spices and covered in powdered sugar. Intricate marzipan displays shaped like animals and fruits appear in bakery windows, and outdoor Christmas markets sell gifts, decorations, and treats. On Christmas Eve in some parts of the country, children leave hay and carrots inside their shoes outside for St. Nicholas’s horse as he passes by. Christmas Eve is also centered on decorating the Christmas tree, a tradition that originally hails from Germany. A traditional holiday drink is glühwein, a mulled wine made with lemon, cloves, and cinnamon. Often enjoyed on Christmas morning is früchtebrot, a type of sweet fruitcake.
The winter hog slaughter is a time-honored tradition all over Greece, making pork the preferred meat for Christmas dinner. Greek Orthodox religious tradition calls for a fasting period to start almost 40 days before Christmas. While the Christmas fast is not as strict as the Easter one, it is still practiced throughout most of Greece today. Dairy products are avoided on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and meat is prohibited the entire time. Vegetables and legumes make up most of the meals during the fast, so it’s not hard to see why Christmas dinner is so appealing. Along with fresh Christmas pork, served roasted or grilled, the Christmas table will also surely include Christopsomo, or "Christ's bread," a Greek specialty baked this time of year. This is a round loaf decorated with dough crosses. Each island or region has its own variation.
The famous feast of the seven fishes is an Italian-American tradition, not one actually celebrated in Italy. In fact, real Italian Christmas Eve dinner is generally light. It might begin with some light seafood dish, followed by pasta. In the north, it might be agnolotti filled with ricotta and spinach, while in the south, riso patate e cozze (rice with potatoes and mussels) might be on the plate. Wherever you are, Christmas Eve dinner, at least in traditional homes, will be senza carne — without meat. For Christmas Day, regional specialties are found in each household, and the general flow of the meal is consistent: antipasto of cured meat, olives, and cheese; pasta — usually a pasticcio al forno, or a baked pasta dish — followed by a meat course of roasted veal, lamb, or chicken with potatoes. Seasonal fruit and dessert will follow and every table in Italy will have a panettone or some other sweet Christmas fruit bread set out.
If you’re spending Christmas in Japan, you might be a bit disappointed in what you wind up getting for dinner. Not because it isn’t delicious, but because you traveled all that way just for the Colonel’s special recipe. Yes, the Japanese are crazy for KFC on Christmas. A bucket of fried chicken is so popular that the Japanese start placing orders two months in advance. It all started with a successful advertising campaign from the brand in 1974 called "Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!). Since then, eating chicken at Christmas has become a national custom.
Christmas dinner in Kenya is a reason to turn the grill on. It’s a time for families to visit and for neighbors to drop in, so the barbie gets fired up and filled with nyama choma, or roasted meat — usually goat, as Kenyans are known as the kings of goat meat. It must be eaten hot, directly off the charcoals, and in one sitting. The Kikuyu and Maasai tribes have a rule that certain parts of goat are served to the boys and other cuts are for girls. In addition to goat, chapati, or fresh-baked flatbread, is made and city dwellers may have Christmas cake.
In Poland, traditional Christmas Eve dinner is one of the most important events of the year. Celebrations begin on December 24 and usually end with Candlemas on February 2. Customs rule the evening, so meat is not allowed, and the serving of the 12-course feast is usually followed by a gift exchange. The meal usually begins with a Christmas Eve version of red borscht. Its beet soup prepared differently from the everyday version and usually served with tiny dumplings, dried ceps, and fried onion. Carp, herring, and pierogis are often on the menu, and the dinner is punctuated by makowiec, or poppy seed cake. It’s always included because the poppy seed stands for prosperity.
Christmas in Russia is celebrated by most people on January 7. Since it falls after New Year’s, the latter holiday is often viewed as more significant. In Poland and Russia, many people fast on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky. Traditional Christmas foods include Russian tea cakes, a pastry made with flour and butter and covered in powdered sugar, and Russian king cake, a three-layer dessert made with cocoa powder and poppy seeds.
The Swedes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, so their big meal happens then. The Christmas Eve smörgåsbord in Sweden is called a julbord. Traditionally the julbord is divided into different plates and eaten in five courses. First comes the seafood — think pickled herring, shellfish, and gravlax. Next, cold cuts including julskinka (Christmas ham), which only shows up this time of year, as well as turkey and roast beef, served with butter and vörtbröd, or a sweet dark bread. Swedish meatballs, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, and lutefisk — air-dried cod or whitefish soaked in lye — make up the next course. It’s all washed down with glögg, or mulled wine. If you’ve got room on Christmas Day for a meal, it will be the leftovers from the night before, so wear stretchy pants.
In Ukraine, a traditional 12-course feast with family is a customary way of celebrating the holiday, and the feast begins once the youngest child spots the evening star in the night sky. The dinner often includes dishes like kutya, or sweet grain pudding; vushka, or petite dumplings with mushrooms; and borscht, or beet soup. Fish is always on the menu as well. Dessert sometimes consists of dried fruit and nuts or uzvar, a stewed fruit drink. Another sweet option is pompushky, or fried doughnuts with poppy seeds, apricot or prune filling inside.
Culinary Christmas celebrations in Britain started to take shape around the Victorian period. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the two introduced Christmas traditions like sending around family Christmas cards and eating certain foods to celebrate. Mince pies, roast turkey, and goose made up the centerpiece of dinner then and now. Turkey was often found on the tables of the wealthy then, but now it is a regular staple in many households. The Christmas pudding, or dessert, is a rich, fruity one, set ablaze with brandy to ward off evil spirits. A silver coin was hidden inside and meant to bring good fortune to whoever found it on his or her plate.
While you may get an array of tasty bites like pernil, or roast pork; pan de jamón, a loaf of bread filled with raisins and ham; and dulce de lechosa, a cold dessert made from green papaya and brown sugar, the single most important part of the Christmas meal in Venezuela is the hallacas. A balance of savory and sweetness, hallacas are much like tamales made with a cornmeal crust and stuffed with meat, olives, raisins, peppers, and pickled vegetables. They are wrapped in banana leaves and boiled and served to eager guests. Hallacas are a time-consuming culinary treat to make, often requiring more than one person aiding in preparation, which may be why they are only eaten around Christmas. They are made in bulk and given out to friends and neighbors as gifts.