The Japanese are predominantly Shintoists and Buddhists, so they don’t observe Christmas as a religous festival. New Year, or Oshōgatsu, however, is celebrated with verve.
On the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, they prepare osechi ryōri (festive dishes) for the jūbako (tiered food box) that sustains them during the holiday from New Year’s Eve to 3 January when all shops are closed. Variously symbolising hopes for prosperity, health and longevity, the foods are arranged in layers known as jūzume, with the top layer including kuromame (sweetened black soybeans); the second, datemaki (sweetened egg roll); the third, seafood and vegetables; and the bottom, nimono (simmered) vegetables.
Celebrations start on New Year’s Eve and are usually held at home, with family and friends gathering around oil heaters and kotatsu (low, heated tables), drinking sake and shōchū (clear distilled spirit) and feasting on osechi ryōri. Many people celebrate with a bowl of toshikoshi soba (long noodles) to invoke a long, rich life. As midnight approaches, people flock to shrines and temples to hear the tolling of the bells welcome the New Year, hang their written wishes on a dedicated wall or tree and drink a saucer of amazake (warm, non-alcoholic sake) for good fortune in the coming year.
Many Christmas traditions were suppressed under the Soviet Union’s communist regime; Saint Nicholas was secularised as Grandfather Frost and celebrations were transferred to New Year. “On 31 December, we would exchange presents, watch the pop concert and fireworks televised from Moscow, and sit down to a feast of five or six cold salads, three or four hot dishes and an elaborate cake for dessert,” recalls Polina Pearson, who immigrated to Sydney from Moldova in 1992. “The main dish was pork, prepared schnitzel-style. These days, it tends to be roast pork.”
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Christmas celebrations have been revived and many Russians have adopted contemporary Western practices. Most Russian Christians belong to the Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar, so the festive period is from Christmas Eve on 6 January to the Epiphany on 19 January.
To a lesser extent in the cities and more so in rural villages, it is customary to fast on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky, after which the Holy Supper of 12 dishes (symbolising the Twelve Apostles) is served. Among the dishes, which may include blini (yeast and buckwheat crepe), fish, suckling pig stuffed with buckwheat kasha (porridge) and pork salami, the most important is kutya, a grain and wheat porridge containing poppy seeds, walnuts and honey that signifies hope, immortality, happiness and success. Though cakes made in Russia today for Christmas are not as elaborate as the layered cakes made for New Year in the Soviet Union, offerings include coffee cake and pryaniki (spiced biscuits).
Christmas observances in the UK can be traced back to 597AD when the Roman monk Saint Augustine led a group of missionaries to England. But it wasn’t until the Victorian era, 1200 years later, that Christmas became an extravagant celebration. The German tradition of the decorated tree took hold in Britain when a drawing of Queen Victoria and German-born Prince Albert standing by a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. In the same year, British confectioner Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker.
Today, Christians in the UK attend church at midnight on Christmas Eve and presents are opened the next morning. Two roasted birds are commonly served: goose (traditional) or turkey (an American custom), and gammon (similar to ham but from a pig that’s produced for bacon). “Last Christmas, we ate a goose that I reared in my garden,” says Rob Boyle, owner of Rob’s British and Irish Butchery in Dandenong, Victoria. “I filled it with the traditional sage and onion stuffing.” Bread sauce, gravy, roast potatoes and brussels sprouts are also served. Dessert is a lavish affair of trifle, mince pies and plum pudding with brandy butter. If you’re lucky, you may find a coin (traditionally, the old sixpence) in your serve of pudding; just make sure you don’t swallow it!
Also known as the Feast of Dedication and the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah begins on 20 December (Kislev in the Jewish calendar) and is observed over eight days and nights. The festival commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem, the subsequent rededication of the Jewish Temple in 164BCE and the miracle that attended the rededication. To purify the temple of the pagan cult installed by the Syrian-Greeks, the Maccabees needed enough sacred oil to ensure the menorah (candelabrum) would burn for eight days, but they had enough for only one. Miraculously, the menorah burnt brightly for eight.
Today, during Hanukkah, each Jewish family gathers to light the menorah, one candle a night, in front of a window in their home. “When you’re lighting the candles, you imagine other people around the world doing the same – it’s lovely. It brings the family together for eight nights,” says Lisa Goldberg, co-author of Monday Morning Cooking Club. “Hanukkah is all about the miracle of the oil, so we eat fried foods, such as latkes (potato fritters) and sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts). The children play with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with letters that stand for the Hebrew phrase, ‘A great miracle happened here’, while singing The Dreidel Song.”
Although just 39 per cent of Lebanon’s population is Christian (Muslims account for 59.7 per cent), Christmas Day is a national holiday. While Lebanese Christians set up trees in their homes, the focus of worship is the Nativity scene, which is presented in a cave, not a stable, and made with wrapping paper. “Lebanese Christians sprout chickpeas, lentils and broad beans on cotton wool and work these into the Nativity scene – it’s a beautiful custom,” says Norma Dakhoul, who runs Lebanese cooking classes in Sydney.
They attend mass on Christmas Eve and gather with family on Christmas Day, usually at the grandparents’ house. The festive banquet is a mix of traditional Lebanese favourites, such as kibbeh, rice, lentils, stuffed chicken, stuffed neck of lamb and burghul, and Western-style dishes, such as stuffed turkey. The meal culminates in meghli, a spiced rice pudding that is eaten to celebrate the birth of a child, including Christ. “And then there’s the bûche de Noël [Yule cake log],” says Norma, “which is usually given as a gift.”
“In Mexico, the time leading up to Navidad [Christmas] is very exciting,” says SBS TV operations editor Roberto Arocha Carreño, who immigrated to Australia from Mexico City in 2004. On weekend evenings in December, Mexicans commemorate Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem with Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration starting with a procession and a reenactment. Families take on the role of innkeeper when other families arrive at the door, requesting, through litany, a roof over their heads. They are then welcomed into the home, where they gather around the Nativity scene. Afterwards, it’s time to party, with children gathering to break open a star-shaped piñata. “It’s an absolute feast as well,” says Roberto of the ritual.
On Christmas Eve, everyone attends midnight mass before sitting down to traditional fare, such as tamales (masa dough parcels steamed in leaves), chiles rellenos (stuffed chillies), ponche con piquete (spiced fruit punch) and atole (a hot flavoured corn maize drink). Children do not receive gifts until El Dia de Reyes, the Day of the Kings, on 6 January, when the Three Wise Men deliver presents overnight. The rosca de reyes (literally meaning kings’ wreath) is eaten and the person who finds the ceramic doll, representing Christ, hidden within the sweet bread ring is assigned to host a party on El Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on 2 February.
Photography by John Laurie.
As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.