New Christmas Food Traditions

By Catherine McNulty

October 11, 2013 5 min read

Are you tired of turkey? Feeling a bit humdrum about ham? Is your stuffing stagnant? Have you been serving the same "traditional" holiday foods for so many years you can't distinguish one Christmas from the next? It is time for a holiday feast overhaul!

Yes, traditional foods are wonderful and there's a reason they are traditional, but that doesn't mean you need to cave to tradition and serve the same tepid green bean casserole every year just because Aunt Dottie used to. And whose traditions are you upholding anyway? Almost every culture that celebrates Christmas has a feast of some kind as part of the celebration. Why not begin some new holiday food traditions? There's a whole world of food waiting to be tasted. After all, the most important part is not what's on the plates but the gathering of friends and loved ones and enjoying a good meal in one another's company.

Big, multicourse meals take a lot of time and planning; a complete overhaul might be a bit ambitious. And Uncle Fred might never forgive you if you were to forgo the mashed potatoes. You can still play around with the menu, but if there's something everyone looks forward to every year, keep it. It's a good idea to have your trustworthy standards when experimenting with new fare.

So where to begin? If you're dealing with feeding die-hard traditionalists, you can finesse the menu to keep them happy and bring in the new culinary experiences, as well. Instead of roast turkey, why not do what the English and French do at Christmastime and serve goose? Similar in taste to duck, goose can be roasted the same way you would roast a turkey. As an added bonus, goose is fattier, so it is less likely to get dry. This also means potatoes can be roasted in the pan with the goose, saving you time in the kitchen -- and the gravy will be stellar.

Many cultures serve a fish dish during the yuletide feast, which can be a nice alternative for those who don't like poultry. In France, it's usually smoked salmon, whereas in Finland, salted salmon makes an appearance. Scandinavian seafood delicacies that could make an appearance include pickled herring, lutefisk in a bechamel sauce, and a whitefish dish. Carp is popular in Poland, and sopa de pescado y marisco (fish and shellfish soup) is on the menu in Spain. Salted cod shows up on menus from Portugal to Mexico.

Want to bring something lighter and healthier to the table? In Mexico, ensalada de Nochebuena is served on Christmas Eve. The salad always includes lettuce and beets and a medley of brightly colored fruits and veggies, such as carrots, apples, pineapple, jicamas and pecans.

Want to add some spice to dinner? Try some new side dishes. It is traditional for Mexicans to eat tamales and pozole for Christmas Eve. In Jamaica, curried goat is standard. Another side dish that could easily be introduced: pierogi from Poland. Because who doesn't love potatoes and cheese wrapped in pasta dough?

Perhaps the easiest place to experiment with new cuisine is the dessert table. By the time Christmas rolls around, most people have had their fill of pumpkin pie, so bringing in something new will be a relief. Instead of fruitcake studded with neon green and red cherries -- which everyone would avoid -- try the German version, stollen, which is a yeasted bread with fruit, nuts and spices, soaked in rum and then covered in marzipan and powdered sugar. If you crave chocolate and like cake decorating, France's buche de Noel should satisfy you. It's a simple sponge cake baked in a shallow pan, lightly frosted, rolled into a log shape and then re-frosted with chocolate. Recruit your kids to help you decorate. They'll be on school break anyway.

We haven't even delved into the plethora of cookies you could be making. Don't just stop at peanut butter thumbprints and sugar cookies! Think of the Belgian speculoos, crunchy, cinnamony cookies that go great with after-dinner coffee and tea. Or Egyptian zalabia balls, syrup-soaked fritters dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. You could eat your way around the world in cookies. 'Tis the season to try.

The further you go from what you are used to the more you realize just how alike people from around the world are. The dishes may differ, but what's really important is having loved ones gathered together. And when all else fails, have plenty of mulled wine, eggnog and other holiday spirits on hand to help take the edge off.

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