Christmas Food Traditions

By Diane Ruyack

Christmas food traditions from around the world show how America is a melting pot of many countries.

In Australia, children leave Santa a piece of cake or biscuit and a glass of milk. Their Christmas dinners include roasted meats and vegetables, special fruit cakes, and puddings with a coin baked inside.

Buche de Noel is one of many traditional cakes baked at Christmas. As the name suggests, it is of French origin. The name of this recipe literally translates as “Christmas log,” referring to the traditional Yule log burned centuries past inspired by the real logs which used to be burned in the hearth throughout Christmas Eve.

Hard candies (candy canes, sticks, etc.)were originally manufactured for medicinal purposes. This idea survives today in the form of cough drops. The concept of sugar as medicine probably came from the tradition of Moslem physicians.

Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. The first gingerbread man is credited to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who favored important visitors with charming gingerbread likenesses of themselves. Sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions. Did you know animal crackers began as edible ornaments?

The practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas, like many other food traditions, was borrowed from earlier cultural practices. Peacocks, swans, geese and turkeys all fit this bill. The larger the bird, the more festive the presence.  Early American settlers of Plimoth Plantation (1620-1692), the first permanent European settlement in southern New England, might have made pumpkin pies (of sorts) by making stewed pumpkins or by filling a hollowed out shell with milk, honey and spices, and then baking it in hot ashes as did northeastern Native American tribes

Fruit cake–a British specialty. The fruit cake as known today cannot date back much beyond the Middle Ages. It was only in the 13th century that dried fruits began to arrive in Britain, from Portugal and the east Mediterranean. Lightly fruited breads were probably more common than anything resembling the modern fruit cake during the Middle Ages.

A fun conversation about your family food traditions might help children become more aware of their “roots” and enjoy a personal history lesson about their ancestors.


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