We’re now less than a week away from Christmas. Though festive celebrations vary massively depending on where you are (as the list below illustrates), indulgent meals are at the heart of almost all the different Christmas traditions (as the list below illustrates).
From Ethiopia’s 43-day fast culminating in a wonderful stew, to Poland’s 12-course extravaganza, to the good old-fashioned British roast dinner, here are some of our favorite Christmas meals from around the world.
Let’s start with Japan, a country so revered for its gastronomy, but with a very unusual Christmas tradition. In fact, this might be the weirdest one of all. That’s because, on Christmas day, Japan loves to eat… KFC. That’s right. Nothing says Christmas dinner in Japan like gathering around the table in one of Colonel Sanders’ famous fried chicken establishments.
You might understandably be asking yourself: why? Well, it dates back to the 1970s and a man named Takeshi Okawara, who was the manager of the first KFC in Japan.
Okawara opened the shop in Nagoya in 1970, and with only one franchise in the country, the enterprising business owner had an idea to market the chicken as a Christmas turkey alternative. This supposedly came to him after he overheard an expat talking about missing the bird on the big day, and that chicken was the best substitute.
As a result, in 1974 Okawara developed the KFC Christmas bucket, marketing it with the slogan ケンタッキーはクリスマス!, meaning Kentucky is Christmas! With Japan not having a particular emphasis on celebrating Christmas, and perhaps because of the resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus, KFC has become a festive staple. It’s so popular that people book their KFC Christmas bucket months in advance.
Christmas is a considerably bigger deal in Poland than it is in Japan. Here, the annual feast begins on Christmas Eve when the first star appears in the night sky, and then consists of 12 courses. It adds another significance to the number at this time of year: the 12 nights of Christmas, the 12 apostles and the 12 months of the year all might be the reason behind Poland’s feast.
Interestingly, it’s a meat-free affair. It kicks off with a traditional beetroot soup called barszcz, and other dishes include carp and pierogies, before a series of tasty desserts.
The Philippines is a devoutly religious country, and they, too, enjoy a lengthy festive celebration. The feast is called Noche Buena and begins late on Christmas Eve and carries on right through until the next morning, with a break for Misa de Gallo, or Midnight Mass.
There are strong Spanish roots to the meal, which involves lots of pork. From glazed ham to traditional roasted pig (lechon), they also eat queso de bola (or Edam cheese). It is often eaten in traditional sweet and salty egg bread rolls known as pan de sal. Various pasta dishes also make the table. One of these is a sweet version of spaghetti and what appears to be ketchup, often served as dessert, along with fruit, coconut cream and hot chocolate.
For breakfast the next day, bibingka is the traditional option. It is a doughy, rice-flour cake, sometimes topped with melted cheese, salted duck egg and a generous sprinkling of grated coconut.
On November 25, orthodox Ethiopians begin their traditional Christmas fast. Here, the holiday is called Ganna, and doesn’t end until January 7, which means it’s a 43-day fast.
When it is finally over, there is no better way to celebrate than with Ethiopia’s national dish: doro wat. It is a fiery chicken stew, made with berbere – a traditional local spice consisting of fenugreek, cardamom and coriander – and hard-boiled eggs. The rooster doro rat is eaten with injera, a fermented flatbread that serves almost a spoon.
Oh Scandinavia, the land of some peculiar foods that are probably very tasty. The Finnish Christmas dinner, eaten on Christmas evening, sounds particularly delicious. A big roast ham takes center stage, and is served with a pickled beetroot and apple salad, and don’t forget your three different types of casserole: swede, carrot, potato.
In the morning, there is also a traditional rice porridge that everyone eats. Within the mix, they hide a single almond. Find the almond and you get good luck for the year.
This has been very food-heavy so far, so a quick nod to the German drink of feuerzangenbowle. Partly because it’s a great word, partly because it literally translates to ‘fire tong punch’, but mainly because it sounds delicious.
Germany is famous for its Christmas markets and mulled wine is a staple of them, but this is no ordinary warm red wine (called glühwein in Germany). To make feuerzangenbowle, you take a rum-soaked sugar cone, set it on fire while hanging over the wine, and watch the caramelized, rum-infused sugar melt into the liquid, giving it a red, hot, presumably delicious taste. One to try.
British food is questioned around the world, often understandably. One dish it is famous for, however, is its roast dinners, and on Christmas Day they cook up the mother of all roasts. Turkey is the pièce de résistance, but it comes with all the trimmings: roast potatoes and/or mashed potatoes, stuffing, pigs in blankets (mini sausages wrapped in bacon), bread sauce, Brussel sprouts (take ‘em or leave ‘em), parsnips, maybe even a Yorkshire pudding, and, of course, lots and lots of gravy.
Another country that often eats Turkey for Christmas dinner is Brazil. Like many others mentioned above, the meal begins late on Christmas Eve and rolls right through to Christmas morning.
It’s not universally Turkey, though. A special roast chicken known as a ‘Chester’ is another alternative, as is their famous dish bacalhau (salted cod). Another traditional recipe served is farofa. It consists of toasted cassava flour, butter and garlic. Add whatever you please, but smoked bacon is a classic. Other dishes that adorn the festive table include garlic kale and Salada de maionese — a potato salad with raisins and apple slices.
Dessert usually involves either Panettone or Rabanadas – a sweeter, Brazilian interpretation of good old-fashioned French toast.
In the northern hemisphere, Christmas is almost intrinsically linked to winter, but there’s a whole other world south of the equator where December is the height of summer. Australia is famous for its barbecues, and Christmas Day is no different. Many of the same foods may appear – beef, turkey, ham, chicken – but they’re given a different spin, grilled on the barbie. You do still have some who roast a bird, but it’s not particularly conducive to the scorching temperatures.
For dessert, pavlova is the classic. The large, baked meringue is served with fruits and cream. Once again, traditional classics like mince pies also make an appearance.
And there you have it. These are just some of the countless ways different cultures celebrate Christmas, and even within countries, there is great variation. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. And that’s one of the many lovely things about this time of year.