mes, carp and flying pigs
Catherine Fellows travels the world to glean some fresh ideas about Yuletide food.
‘The turkeys and geese cooked for Christmas in Greater London would form an army, marching ten abreast, stretching from London to Brighton, and the champagne consumed on Christmas Day would keep Trafalgar Square fountains working incessantly for five days.’ So said The Royal Magazine. . .in 1900.
Now, presumably, those birds would be marching through the Channel Tunnel and heading for Spain, French farmers permitting. Far from dying, it seems that Christmas is growing to crisis, proportions. The much-lamented ‘Spirit of Christmas’ is mutating, but that in itself is traditional. Layers of Christianity have been superimposed onto layers of Paganism and more recently sandwiched with an extra slice of Paganism, as Christmas gathers what it can on its spree around the world on capitalism’s sleigh.
Happily, the ubiquitous Grinning Giver still smiles on a heartwarming diversity of national and regional rituals. Even ‘wordly’ Europe gets terribly excited and spends anachronistic amounts of time in the kitchen so that all the details are right. In France for example, where the lavish reveillon meal is not served until after midnight mass, the anticipation must be enormous.
The Germans are perhaps most devoted to Christmas. For days before, the legendary shaped and elaborately iced cakes and biscuits can be eaten and admired in street bazaars all over the country.
Christmas Eve must be magical in the rural mountain villages of Austria, where, after a meal of fried carp, a torchlit procession makes its way to the church. The furthest cottagers set out first across the slopes and gradually the whole village accumulates, snowball fashion. In Romania tune is a special cake eaten on Christmas Eve. It is made from many layers of thin dough interlaced with honey and crushed walnuts. While preparing the dough, the Romanian housewife traditionally sets aside a handful of dough for the symbolic tree ceremony. Her husband follows her to a tree, and in macho fashion threatens to hack it down because it is bearing no fruit. She stalls him with feminine charm, intoning, ‘I am sure it will be as full of fruit next summer as my hands are full of dough’, at which point she
triumphantly opens her hands to him. This is to coax otherwise lazy trees into fruitfulness, but it seems like a sublimation of much more.
Good Czechoslovakian children
fasting on Christmas Eve are
promised that they will see flying golden pigs at suppertime. They are not disappointed, even if they are not hallucinating from hunger. Candles are lighted, and as the traditional roast suckling pig is brought in, golden shadows dance on the walls. One chair at the table is left vacant for the Christ child.
Lithuanians remind themselves of the manger by strewing their dining tables with straw. Siberians have a moving ritual from the days when escaped prisoners wandered through the freezing wastes. They reserve a portion ofevery course of their Christmas feast and set it just inside a darkened window to be taken by ‘those whom nobody must see’. In the Ukraine the dinner is not served until the first star is spotted in the sky. The meal has twelve courses, one in honour of each apostle, including borsch, cabbage stuffed with millet, and cooked dried fruit. For desert, kutya is prepared from soaked wheat, honey and poppy seeds.
Many Eastern European customs in particular survive best in emigrant communities in the States. But at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Moravian kuemmelbrod cakes passed around at the ‘Love Feast’ church service are rather overshadowed by the 150 spruces and 1200 electric lights which span
the town’s hill-to-hill bridge. The Americans do it BIG. Over Christmas, Denver uses more than 33,000 lights to illuminate its civic centre, while a single district of Kansas City uses 20,000 lights and 60 miles ofwiring. Since 1934, Palmer Lake. Colorado, has featured a star 500 feet in diameter on the side of Sundance Peak, visible to traffic passing twenty miles away. The post office in Santa Claus, Indiana, receives 60,000 pieces of mail a day in the run-up to Christmas. . . and somebody answers them!
In the south, Christmas can be really hot. In parts of California, Father Christmas comes roaring in on water-skis, foam on his white beard and red bathing trunks. At the great Christmas Day picnics on Bondi Beach you can nip down to the sea to wash the bread sauce off your bikini. Most Australians wait for the cool ofevening for their celebration meal, and I am sure they no longer eat the braised kangaroo and parrot pie garnished with wattle twigs favoured by their Victorian ancestors. Carols by Candlelight in Melbourne’s Central Park draws a crowd of 150,000 and raises as many dollars for charity: ‘BelI-birds shall ring their silver peal/ From gullies green and deep. . .’ ‘Our wattle trees shall shower their gold/ In tribute to our King. . .’
In Latin America, Christmas centres around the Nacimientos or manger scenes, some ofwhich include glorious plastic anachronisms: trains paying homage to the Christ child, planes neck and neck with angels adding to the bemusement of shepherds. In Costa Rica people will fill a whole room in their homes with the Nacimiento, and spend the days approaching Christmas admiring neighbours’ efforts and entertaining visitors to their own. The Mexican Posada is similar, but involves a re-enactment of the arrival of the holy couple in Bethlehem. Families go from house to house divided into cruelhearted innkeepers and holy pilgrims. Singing and ritual requests for shelter precede fireworks and the pinata. An earthenware jar decorated with silver and gold paper and coloured streamers is suspended in the centre of the patio. Children approach one by one, blindfold, and try to smash it open with sticks until its contents of fruit and sweets are released.
In Colombia and Nicaragua, Christmas dinner is likely to be a ramale. It is made ofground corn, with a filling ofturkey, chicken or pork, raisins, almonds, olives and chili, wrapped in banana leaves. Wine, coffee or chocolate may be served, and corn meal cake covered with rum-ﬂavoured syrup. In Colombia, pudding would certainly include bunuelos.
% cup sugar
3 eggs well beaten
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 cup water
Blend butter, sugar and lemon rind. Add eggs, water and enough ﬂour to make a soft dough. Spread out the dough and cut off small pieces. Drop in deep fat which must not be too hot. When brown, remove and drain on paper. Serve Sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon, syrup or honey.
Classic Christmas Cookies
German Christmas Lebkuchen
4 egg yolks
8oz citron finely sliced
ltsp ground cloves
21/2tsp baking powder
Melt butter over low heat. Stir in sugar, spices, chopped almonds and eggs (well beaten). Mix baking powder into ﬂour thoroughly. Add flour to egg mixture slowly. Roll out dough thinly and cut into shapes desired. Place half an almond in the
70 The List 21 December 1990— 10 January 1991