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Celebrating Christmas Around the World: A Culinary Expedition

As Christmas approaches, families worldwide prepare to gather around festive tables, each laden with unique dishes that capture the essence of their cultural traditions. In this culinary expedition, we traverse the globe to uncover the delightful and diverse ways in which Christmas is celebrated through cuisine in France, Italy, England, Greece, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

France: An Extravagant Affair on December 24

In France, the renowned pastry chef Francois Payard offers a glimpse into the extravagant Christmas celebration. On December 24, locals sit down for dinner at 8 p.m., beginning with a first course of seafood – either the classic lobster thermidor or shrimp scampi. The feast continues with a succulent capon, accompanied by mashed potatoes and chestnuts sautéed with butter and sage. Chestnuts, Payard notes, are a staple in any French Christmas meal. The grand finale is the dessert – a yule log or bûche de Noël, featuring variations like chocolate and chestnut. The meal is elegantly complemented by the finest red wine from Burgundy.

On Christmas Day, the French savor a hearty brunch, including creamy scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and toast. The culinary journey concludes with an assortment of cheeses like Brie, Gruyere, and Munster.

Italy: Sumptuous Spreads and Midnight Mass

Similar to the French, Italians celebrate their grandest Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. Luca Finardi, the general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Milan, describes a lavish affair following midnight Mass. Smoked salmon with buttered crostini or smoked salted cod sets the stage for the main meal. Coastal Italians may indulge in a crudo such as sea bass with herbs and sea salt, while the iconic tortellini in brodo takes center stage. The main course varies, with northern Italians opting for stuffed turkey and those along the coast enjoying a baked sea bass with roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Panettone, a typical sweet bread, is a must-have, warmed up for a few minutes, and paired with spumante, a sparkling wine. Christmas Day, in contrast, is more about connecting with family, enjoying leftovers, and recovering from the festive indulgence.

England: Christmas Morning Elegance

In England, the festive spirit begins on Christmas morning, according to Nicola Butler, owner of luxury travel company NoteWorthy. The 24th is reserved for cooking with families and a pint at the local pub. The real festivities commence with a glass of champagne and a breakfast featuring smoked salmon and mince pieces. Later in the day, after the Queen’s annual Christmas speech, the main meal takes center stage – a feast of turkey or roast beef, accompanied by traditional sides like roasted parsnips, carrots, peas, Brussels sprouts, and sometimes Yorkshire pudding.

Dessert in England is the iconic Christmas pudding, a dark and dense cake enriched with dried fruits and spices, usually accompanied by ample wine.

Greece: Fireplace Gatherings and Day-Long Feasts

Celebrations in Greece start on Christmas Eve around 7 p.m., as families gather around the fireplace. Celebrity Greek chef Maria Loi shares the traditions of enjoying special wheat bread and, in some households, pork sausages – a rarity in Greek cuisine. After an early morning holy communion on Christmas Day, Greeks engage in a day-long eating fest.

Homemade honey cookies with walnuts or almonds kick off the festivities, followed by chicken soup with orzo. The main course features options like roast chicken stuffed with chestnuts or various grilled or braised pork dishes. Sides include sautéed wild greens, shredded romaine with scallions and feta cheese, and roasted lemon potatoes. Desserts are light and may include baked apples with honey and walnuts or Greek yogurt topped with honey. Red wine is the beverage of choice.

Mexico: Piñatas, Posole, and Leftover Delights

In Mexico, Christmas festivities kick off on December 24 with the breaking of piñatas filled with locally made candies in chili and tamarind flavors. Dinner follows between 7 and 10 p.m., featuring posole – a stew with big corn kernels and pork or beef, accompanied by a myriad of condiments. In a nod to American influence, turkey with all the trimmings, including mashed potatoes and green beans, may grace the Mexican Christmas table.

The sweet finish often includes a creamy flan with strawberries and cream. Christmas Day becomes a day of rest and leftover indulgence, as families heat up the remnants of the previous night’s feast.

Costa Rica: Midnight Mass Extravaganza and Rum Punch Bliss

Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas with a middle-of-the-night extravaganza, according to Leo Ghitis, owner of Nayara Hotels. After midnight Mass, a huge meal is enjoyed at 2 a.m. Homemade tamales, filled with chicken, pork, or vegetables and cheese, kick off the spread. The feast continues with arroz con pollo, Costa Rica’s national rice dish, featuring green beans, peas, carrots, saffron, cilantro, and a chopped-up whole chicken.

The third course presents an assortment of grilled proteins, varying from seafood for coastal dwellers to beef, pork, and chicken for those inland. Sides are consistent for both – rice with black beans, boiled palm fruit with sour cream, and a hearts of palm salad with avocado. Dessert is a delightful combination of coconut flan and arroz con leche. The culinary journey concludes with copious amounts of rum punch and eggnog, extending into the early morning hours of Christmas Day.

In these culinary traditions, the world comes together to celebrate Christmas with unique flavors, cherished rituals, and the warmth of shared meals. Whether it’s the elegance of a French yule log, the hearty feasts of an Italian Christmas Eve, or the midnight extravagance of a Costa Rican celebration, each country adds its distinct touch to the global tapestry of Christmas traditions.