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Christmas is fast approaching, and throughout the United States, people are buying presents and planning their holiday meals. And like the season’s snowflakes, each family’s feast is unique. Writer Helen Huthnance explains.
Text by: Helen Huthnance
Country: USA

hen asked by foreign friends what a typical Christmas meal is like in the U.S., I can’t give a single answer. Many foreigners think of the U.S. as a homogenous culture, but in fact, it is a hodgepodge of cultures and traditions. Some foods have become common throughout the U.S. for the Christmas meal, but many differences remain.

Immigrants from all over the world all brought their own traditions and cultures with them, and they extend to their holiday meals. Over time meals have been adapted, sometimes because the exact ingredients could not be found or because the weather wasn’t right for a certain dish. Sometimes people just wished to incorporate new traditions from their new home country. In addition, intermarriage among people from different cultures has combined different traditions into holiday meals that would be unrecognizable in the old countries.

In some families the most important meal that they share with their extended family is served on Christmas Eve. Some people have an early dinner, around 4 p.m., while others have a late dinner around 9 or 10 p.m. followed by Christmas mass. Still other families share the important meal on Christmas Day, and even breakfast may be the main event.

Families often tend to alternate which set of parents or grandparents they visit for Christmas dinner, which adds even more variety to the feast. If they all live fairly close to each other, they might regularly have Christmas Eve dinner with one side of the family and Christmas Day lunch with the other. And if you throw a divorce into the mix, you may wind up with four different families you have to visit.

Different cultures, different meals

Once Americans settle on a time and place for their Christmas meal, what do they put on the table? I interviewed a number of friends from different states and different backgrounds, and their meals varied widely.

Natalie from Georgia says her family typically ate on Christmas Day around 1 p.m., which is a late lunch in the U.S. The meal was usually baked ham with green bean casserole, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, Waldorf salad, and a holiday green gelatin salad. This salad is made from mayonnaise, crushed pineapples, gelatin and pecans and was quite typical in most Southern households. “There were always a zillion Christmas desserts, which included all types of cookies and Magic Bars, and of course, Eggnog,” she said.

Shawn from Florida indicated that her family usually ate the main meal on Christmas Day anywhere between 2 and 4 p.m., depending on when everyone arrived. Their typical meal included a spiral-sliced honey -baked ham or roast beef, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, various vegetables and ambrosia: a fruit salad with coconut flakes and a sweet dressing. And for dessert they always had many pies, including pecan, pumpkin, and walnut. But tradition does not always dominate at her parents’ house; she explained that sometimes her “stepfather whips up some crazy James Beard menu to match with some wine, and all traditions go out the door, except dessert!”

Brandon from Michigan spends Christmas Eve with his mother and Christmas Day with his father. In both cases, they have big dinners in the late afternoon. The typical fare includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls or biscuits, vegetables, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. And for dessert they have pumpkin and apple pies.

Colin grew up in Iowa and usually had the main meal in the evening on Christmas Day. Because it’s quite cold in winter, dinner usually involved at least one oven-cooked dish. Not only would this provide a delicious, warm meal, the heat from the oven would help warm the house as well. They usually had some type of bird, either turkey or chicken, with a bunch of sides. “But my memory, and I think those of my siblings, was centered more on breakfast,” he said. “My mother would always bake cinnamon rolls and we would open a present, then eat, then open, and so on.”

Kirsten from Minnesota usually ate dinner at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, and then the family would open presents. They would have turkey and stuffing with gravy, roasted potatoes, a hot veggie like green beans, a salad and for dessert ice-cream and a pie and Christmas cookies.

Christmas with her mother’s side of the family, however, was quite different. She explained that her grandmother “has German heritage so we would often have herring salad and shrimp cocktail as an appetizer, followed by top sirloin cooked slowly by basting it with a cream of mushroom /butter sauce. Mushrooms on the side. Two hot veggies in butter or green beans with cream sauce and bacon, wild rice with mushrooms and water chestnuts, and a hot baguette with melted butter inside.” Dessert included coffee, ice-cream, and Christmas cookies.

Anthony from California would often have a special meal with friends on Christmas Eve, usually Dungeness crab. The main meal with the family would be on Christmas Day in the evening and was often standing rib roast and occasionally goose. They would start out with a shrimp cocktail and accompany the main course with veggies and scalloped potatoes. But the most important part was the homemade peppermint ice-cream served in parfait glasses with at least five different homemade cookies.

Trudy grew up in Washington State, and her mother is from Idaho, so the family would often alternate between the two states. They would have their big celebration on Christmas Eve and eat a large meal around 4 p.m. so they could have time to clean everything up before opening the presents.

When I asked Trudy about food, she explained: “As far as food goes, there is one thing that we have always had on the table and that I think is a unique tradition to us. It is called rolled meat pie. My mom makes it, and her mom made it before her. I know at least one of my uncles makes it too. She doesn’t have a recipe written down but she taught my niece how to make it and gave me the basic instructions.”

For many families, recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation are a key to Christmas meals. It doesn’t matter if your mother or grandmother actually got the recipe out of a book, once you grow up with the dish, it becomes tradition. Some families still serve dishes that no one really likes, out of tradition and respect. After all, who is going to say that they hate great-aunt Dorothy’s fruit salad with marshmallows?

Jayne from Missouri would typically have her large Christmas meal late at night on Christmas Eve. Her grandparents were first-generation Italian immigrants who lived in “little Italy” in St. Louis, so their meal was not typical Midwestern fare. As a matter of fact, they usually had ravioli for Christmas dinner.

Bud is from Illinois, which is also in the Midwest. They usually had their big Christmas meal in the afternoon of Christmas Day, more like a late lunch. He said the foods were “the typical foods you’d find at any potluck meal in the Midwest: turkey or ham and all the fixings, and salads.”

Louis, also from Illinois, had a very different Christmas experience from Bud. His parents are Colombian, so his holiday traditions followed more in the Colombian footsteps than the Midwestern ones. Their large Christmas meal was on the morning of Christmas Day. “My family would always stay up until midnight to open presents, go to bed, and wake up to a huge meal. That huge meal was caldo de papa, and the occasional arepa. Sometimes hot chocolate too.”

Although the meals sometimes varied widely amongst my friends in the different states, I did find that most of them enjoyed Christmas cookies and eggnog for the holiday. Eggnog seems to have originated in England, but its consumption there has gone by the wayside and it’s now considered a quintessential American holiday tradition. You can find many boxed or bottled versions at the grocery store, but the best is undoubtedly one made from scratch. With a little time and patience you can make some wonderful eggnog yourself. Just don’t skimp on the alcohol: as Mark Twain once said, “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

Eggnog Recipe (adapted from the Joy of Cooking)

Beat separately until light in color:
6 egg yolks
Beat in gradually:
1/2 pound confectioner’s sugar

Add very slowly, beating constantly:
1 cup dark rum, brandy, bourbon, or rye
You can either combine these liquors or use just one of them as the basic ingredient.
Let the mixture stand covered for one hour.

After one hour, add, beating constantly:
1 to 2 more cups of chosen liquor
1 quart whipping cream
1/2 cup peach brandy (optional)

Refrigerate covered for 3 hours.

Beat until stiff, but not dry:
6 egg whites

Fold egg whites lightly into the other ingredients.

Serve with freshly grated nutmeg.

Enjoy!



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A Christmas Feast

There is no such thing as a typical Christmas meal in the United States. The U.S. is a country of immigrants with many different cultures and traditions and this extends to their holiday meals.
The time when people eat varies from state to state and family to family. Some people have their main meal for dinner on Christmas Eve and others for Christmas Day lunch, or even breakfast! What people eat for Christmas also differs. I interviewed a number of friends from different states and different backgrounds, and their meals varied widely.

Natalie from Georgia says her family usually hadbaked ham with green bean casserole, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, Waldorf salad, and a holiday green gelatin salad. 'There were always a zillion Christmas desserts, which included all types of cookies and Magic Bars, and of course, Eggnog,' she said.

Colin from Iowa usually had some type of bird, either turkey or chicken, with a bunch of sides. 'But my memory, and I think those of my siblings, was centered more on breakfast,' he said. 'My mother would always bake cinnamon rolls and we would open a present, then eat, then open, and so on.'

For many families, recipes are passed down from generation to generation and are very important for Christmas meals. It doesn’t matter if the recipe originally came from a book, once you grow up with the dish, it becomes tradition. Even though the meals sometimes vary widely amongst my friends in the different states, I did find that most of them enjoy Christmas cookies and eggnog for the holiday. Eggnog is a quintessential American holiday tradition and with a little time and patience, you can make some wonderful eggnog from scratch.

 

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A Christmas Feast

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