This time of year, many Americans tend to focus on Christmas and New Year's Day. But a number of other cultures mark this season in their own special ways, and be it Hanukkah or Pongal, a central part of each celebration is food. We've gathered some of the best of the world's holiday dishes, and we hope they'll inspire you with their wonderful flavors, and soon become a part of your traditions.
First celebrated in the United States in 1966, Kwanzaa was created for those of African descent around the world to reconnect with their common heritage. The name is derived from traditional harvest celebrations in Africa called matunda ya kwanza, literally "first fruits," which were seven days of gathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment, and celebration. Beginning on December 26 and lasting for seven days, modern Kwanzaa celebrations esteem one of the seven core principles of African American unity, the Nguzo Saba, on each night. Karamu, a lavish feast of traditional foods from African cultures around the world, takes place near the end of the holiday.
English: Boxing Day
The tradition of Boxing Day began in 19th-century England under the reign of Queen Victoria, although the exact origin of its name is unclear. One theory connects it to the tradition of clergy opening the alms boxes on the day after Christmas to distribute money among the poor. Another suggests that the name came from the practice of merchants handing out boxes of food or clothing to their apprentices the day after Christmas as a sort of Victorian-era bonus. Many modern Brits associate Boxing Day with yet another tradition―Christmas leftovers and family gatherings. This custom, too, can be tied to Victorian England, when servants worked on Christmas and headed home to their families the following day with boxes full of the upstairs family's leftovers. The holiday is celebrated each year on December 26―unless that date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, in which case the holiday takes place on the following Monday.
Iranian: Shab-e Yalda
In Iran, the winter solstice, which falls on December 21, is hailed with Shab-e Yalda―the birthday of the sun. It's a celebration of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. It is thought that on the longest night with evil at its zenith, light needs help to overcome darkness. On this day, families build a bonfire outside and gather until sunrise for a night of storytelling, dancing, and food. In Iranian culture, certain nutritional properties of foods are considered hot and others are considered cold (regardless of temperature or level of spice), much like Chinese yin or yang. Balance between the two is important. Summer foods are preserved throughout the year for the Shab-e Yalda feast, where they mingle with the foods of winter to symbolize the balance of seasons. Saffron and carrots, for example, are warm foods served during Shab-e Yalda to counter the cold of winter.
Hindu: Makar Sankrat/Pongal
This January 14 Hindu holiday celebrates the new solar year, considered to be the beginning of the new day for the gods and the end of their six-month night. It is observed and named differently in each region―Pongal in the south of India and Makar Sankrat in the north. But most festivities include a common theme of ceremonial cleansing, offerings, and celebrations of the harvest. Pongal, which means "to boil over," refers both to the concept of bounty and to the traditional dish of rice boiled in milk, which is given to the gods as an offering. Sesame seeds, or til, are looked upon as a symbol of health and friendship. Sweets made from sesame and jaggery―a special kind of sugar―are exchanged on the holiday along with the saying, "accept these sweets and speak sweet words." The tradition reminds people to resolve past quarrels so that friendship can thrive.
More than 2,000 years ago in Palestine, Judas Maccabee and his followers triumphed over the tyrant Antiochus and his army, despite overwhelming odds. But when they returned to Jerusalem, they found their temple desecrated with pagan idols. In order to purge the temple of its defilement, the Maccabees rebuilt the altar and cleansed the temple, rededicating it during eight days of ceremonies. Tradition holds that there was only enough sanctified olive oil to light the temple for one day, but it burned miraculously for all eight days of the celebration. Today, those of the Jewish faith celebrate this victory during an eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of Kislev (in late November or December). Each night of Hanukkah, people light one candle on the menorah in memory of the miracle of the oil. Since antiquity, the festival has also honored the significance of olive oil to the ancient Jewish culture as fuel, food, and even medicine, and it shows in the foods of the feast. Dishes cooked in olive oil, and latkes (potato pancakes) in particular, are celebratory symbols of this gift of sustenance.
Muslim: Eid ul-Fitr/Hari Raya Puasa
Ramadan is the monthlong Muslim holiday celebrating the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad. Devout Muslims fast each day from sunup to sundown for the full month and then break the fasting period with a three-day festival. Because the Muslim world spans many countries and cultures, the celebrations, foods, and even the name of the festival change from place to place―in Arab countries, it's called Eid ul-Fitr, and in Malaysia it's called Hari Raya Puasa. The dates change from year to year (falling sometime between October and December), depending on the Islamic calendar. Although the festival reaches a broad group of people who celebrate it in diverse ways, there are general things that all Muslims do during Eid," says Rabiah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, such as preparing the house, getting dressed up, and gathering with family and friends for a feast. After 30 days of fasting, food is shared in abundance, and children exchange gifts and receive money from their elders.