During the holidays, food isn't something that's just eaten -- it's an agent between people to spread cheer and to keep warm in the dark winter months. Many of the foods listed below have become, over periods of time that range from centuries to only the last few decades, traditional holiday eats by their ability to bring people together.
With this season comes fruitcakes, chocolates, baked goods, elaborately prepared dishes, or simply, takeout. What are some annual holiday traditions, and how did they become traditions in the first place? Here are dishes enjoyed around the world and right here in L.A. around the winter holidays.
1. Verivorst (Estonia): Farmers needed to take advantage of every opportunity to stretch out their fall harvest in the unforgiving climes of the Baltic. With fall came the slaughter of animals, and the bounty would be smoked, salted, and preserved for the long, punishing winter. Blood sausage would also be made at this time -- it was seen as wasteful to throw away the blood from the slaughter. Comprising a mix of blood, barley, onions, and spices, verivorst is typically enjoyed with relish and other hearty foods over Christmas. Today, Estonians around the world gather to make their own batches of verivorst in anticipation of the holiday season. Nose-to-tail eating in its truest form.
2. Tamales (Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the United States, and many other Latin American countries): Because tamales are so labor intensive to make, long stretches of time need to be dedicated in advance just to make them. Around the holidays, families gather together to hold a tamalada, during which numerous family members make tamales in bulk. In a typical setup, family members are tasked with specific elements of the tamal, and all these parts are then combined and wrapped in a cornhusk, ready to be steamed for the big meal.
3. Pepparkakor, piparkakut, piparkükas, piparkoogid, etc. (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, and other NEuropean countries): Like verivorst and tamales, these cookies -- only as thick as a nickel -- are a shared responsibility between parents and kids. These treats can be cut in every shape imaginable, but traditional forms take on silhouettes of sheep, pigs, and people. Many European countries have their own version of the gingersnap, but the Swedish version is a bit heavier on the spices.
4. Oranges (worldwide): The sweet flesh of fruit used to be rare (especially in winter months), but today, with our ability to access nearly every type of fruit from every corner of the world, the ubiquity of fruit has rendered them ordinary. But even as recently as a hundred years ago, fruit was an uncommon sight in winter, especially in the northern climates. Because it was seen to be such an extraordinary treat, oranges or clementines were traditionally left in stockings as gifts. While many still uphold the tradition, others (perhaps those unimpressed by the ubiquity of fruit in December) opt for the foil-lined chocolate oranges these days.
5. Fruitcake (mostly Europe and North America): This confection has somehow become the most ridiculed of holiday foods, but the humble fruitcake started out as a luxury item. The cost of procuring fruit in the dead of winter was seen as an extravagance, one that was fit to impress as a gift. In the early 20th century, however, manufacturers began offering mass-produced fruitcakes, which were often characterized by their hockey puck-like consistency. Embedded with candied fruit and nuts, the contemporary version of this traditional Christmas loaf now tends to serve more as a doorstop than as something to put on the table.
6. Kentucky Fried Chicken (Japan): Thanks to KFC's wildly successful advertising campaign in 1974 known as Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii ("Kentucky for Christmas"), Japan now celebrates December 25 (which is just another ordinary day in the country) by tucking into a bucket of the colonel's secret recipe. The tradition can be credited to what the Japanese see as the American-ness of Christmas and not necessarily a connection to any particular religious narrative.
7. Oysters, foie gras, bûche de nöel (France). All the stops are pulled out on Christmas Eve, when families in France gather around a spread of some of the most decadent and sumptuous foods they'll enjoy all year. With a focus on seafood and poultry, Christmas Eve dinner in France is an extravagant affair, and the family table is lined with plates of oysters, different preparations of foie gras, and bûche de noël.
8. Chinese food (United States). In our 24-hour culture, Christmas might be the longest day of the year when everything is essentially closed that day. Chinese restaurants, as some of the only establishments to stay open, are frequented by those of us who don't mark Christmas, such as Jewish Americans, who, like some Chinese, treat Christmas as just another day. The New York City, Lower East Side, tradition of feasting on orange chicken and lo mein on Christmas Day has become as American as the tailgate party.
9. Wat (Ethiopia). Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians are among the oldest Christian communities in the world, and the country still conforms to the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar around 45 B.C.). The calendar designates January 7 as Christmas Day, and Ethiopians celebrate it with traditional foods such as a meaty stew known as wat, commonly enjoyed with the tangy injera bread.
10. Buñuelo (Colombia and worldwide). These small balls made of cheese are common throughout the year, but they shine around Christmas, when they're offered as part of party buffets and served with a custard-like pudding called natilla, also commonly eaten around the holidays.
11. Tangyuan (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other Asian countries). Attractively colored -- they're usually pink or white -- these sweet or savory glutinous rice balls are enjoyed as part of the Dongzhi festival, which ushers in the winter solstice. Depending on the location, they can be filled with sesame paste, crushed nuts mixed with coconut, and served in a sweet or savory broth, but its symbolism is consistent: tangyuan represents the strength of family ties.