Christmas food around the world

by Katie Smith 10 December 2015

Across the world one central theme always emerges in the traditions surrounding Christmas – food. Here we take a look at some of the weird and wonderful Christmas dishes enjoyed by people around the globe.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. On her recent travels around South America she could often be found in the bustling food markets trying the local specialities and finding inspiration for new recipes. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.


Christmas in Europe is a time for feasting, and in France this begins with le réveillon on Christmas Eve. Stemming from the word réveiller meaning ‘to wake up’, this relaxed and extensive dinner is a carry over from the times when French Catholics would return home from Midnight Mass and satisfy their hunger pangs with a selection of tasty offerings. The tradition still stands today, with luxurious entrées of foie gras, oysters, snails, seafood, smoked salmon, or even caviar, followed by a plat principal such as roasted goose, capon or a game bird, a delectable assortment of fine French cheeses before concluding with a delicious Bûche de Nöel (or Yule Log) washed down with French wine or Champagne.

In Provence, le réveillon concludes with no less than thirteen different desserts (a number representative of Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles) and includes dried fruits, nougat and la pompe à huile, which is a sweet loaf flavoured with olive oil. In fact, the tradition of feasting for le réveillon is so well-loved that it is repeated again on New Year's Eve to ring in the New Year.

The Netherlands

Christmas is not just confined to 25 December in the Netherlands; it is a spread over several days and commences with Sinterklaas (St Nicholas Day) on 5 December. This is the day traditionally set aside for present giving and feasting. Sweet treats such as the almond paste-filled banketletter, spiced biscuits like kruidnoten and speculaas as well as taai taai with its unique chewy texture and subtle aniseed flavour are just some of the offerings that can be found in Dutch homes around Sinterklaas.

The main Kerstfeest (Christmas) celebrations don’t just centre on one single day. Indeed, Kerstfeest is so beloved that it encompasses both the 25 December and 26 December with Eerste Kerstdag (First Christmas Day) and Tweede Kerstdag (Second Christmas Day). For those who venture out to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve there is the reward of a feast known as koffietafel when they return home that’s full of cheeses, cold meats, bread, jams and warming hot drinks. After all that feasting comes breakfast, centred around the kerststol; a special Christmas fruit loaf packed with raisins, dusted with sugar and often served smothered in butter, alongside savoury offerings of anything from smoked salmon to pâté.

A traditional Christmas dinner encompasses meats such as roast beef, pork and duck as well as game meats like hare and pheasant. Another popular option is gourmetten (gourmet) which has become a bit of a culinary phenomenon since the seventies. People gather round a hot griddle placed in the middle of the Christmas dinner table with their own miniature pans and spatulas to cook pieces of meat from steak to slavink (ground meat), vegetables and even pancake batter for pudding.


Christmas starts early in Germany, with the festivities officially commencing on Nikolaustag (St Nicholas Day) on 5 December. As per tradition, children leave their shoes outside the front door that night and wait expectantly for them to be filled with chocolates, oranges and nuts by Santa. Nuts are omnipresent in German Christmas baking too, mixed with spices including cinnamon and cloves to form pfeffernüsse and lebkuchen which are enjoyed throughout the festive season, often washed down with a little mandatory glass of hot, spice-steeped glühwein.

Gingerbread is, of course, at the centre of the German Christmas world and can be found in the form of gingerbread houses, gingerbread men and Christmas tree decorations. Christbaumgebäck, the German Christmas tree pastry, is also moulded into various festive shapes and used to decorate Christmas trees. Marzipan features prominently on the agenda too, finding its way into the sweet, fruit studded, yeasted dough of stollen and cocoa dusted, bite-sized marzipankartoffeln.

Christbaumgebäck, the German Christmas tree pastry, is [also] moulded into various festive shapes and used to decorate Christmas trees.

Katie Smith

When it comes festive feasting, a traditional Christmas Eve meal generally consists of simpler fare with carp and heringssalat (a potato salad mixed with salted herring, apple and pickled beetroot) the most favoured choices. Raclette is also extremely popular for social occasions; everyone crowds round special pans filled with salami, onions, peppers and mushrooms, all topped off with cheese to be slowly grilled and enjoyed with side dishes such as potatoes and other vegetables. Christmas Day is a much grander affair, with families sitting down to enjoy meals of roast goose, suckling pig, duck or venison, served alongside white sausage and dishes of red cabbage, spätzle (soft egg noodles) and knödel (German dumplings).


Wigilia (Christmas Eve dinner) is the main event in the Polish Christmas calendar. The feast commences when the first star (Gwiazdka) is seen in the sky, and begins with the breaking of opłatek (Christmas wafers). The meal is a meatless affair, which harks back to older Christian traditions stipulating abstinence on the day before Christmas. Religious tradition has also influenced the number of courses served, with a total of twelve lovingly prepared dishes to represent the twelve apostles.

The Christmas menu usually begins with soup such as borscht (beetroot soup), mushroom soup, sour rye soup and carp soup. Carp is an extremely integral part of the festivities, as it is elsewhere across Eastern Europe, and is also the main event of the dinner accompanied by dishes such as sauerkraut and kartofle (boiled potatoes). Sledzie (pickled herring), stuffed pierogi (dumplings) and cabbage rolls filled with rice and mushrooms are never amiss on the table, which is covered with a layer of hay underneath the tablecloth to act as a reminder that Jesus was born in a manger.

The meal is then followed by traditional desserts including kutia, a sweet grain pudding made with honey, dried fruits, nuts and poppy seeds, and makowiec, a poppy seed cake baked especially for the occasion. The Poles are just as obsessed with gingerbread as the rest of us at Christmas. Instead of biscuits, a cake called piernik is baked, which is infused with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg (and of course ginger) and layered with traditional plum jam (powidła). Wigilia tends to be a sober affair, but a swig of honey laced vodka called krupnik is allowed and is guaranteed to warm anyone up on a cold Christmas Eve.


For those who don’t know, Finland (or more precisely Lapland) is the home of Father Christmas. Christmas Eve is when Santa comes to visit, and also happens to be the most celebrated day in the Finnish Christmas calendar. The day starts with a traditional Christmas Eve breakfast of rice pudding often flavoured with cinnamon and sweetened with sugar, and is when the Christmas tree is put up and decorated with piparkakut (gingerbread biscuits). As in many other European countries, gingerbread biscuits are eaten throughout the festive season and are also handed out as part of the St Lucia day celebrations on 13 December. The Christmas baking doesn’t stop there; there are plenty of other Finnish Christmas treats such as joulutorttu, prune jam-filled pinwheel pastries, and joululimppu, a traditional sweet bread spiced with aniseed and fennel. These delicious bakes are enjoyed throughout the season with a glass of warming glögi, the Finnish version of mulled wine infused with spices like cardamom and cinnamon, and maybe a few raisins and almonds served alongside for good measure.

The majority of Finnish households sit down to a meal of roast pork, lipeäkala (dried white fish), gravlax, casseroles, salads such as rosolli made from beetroot and carrot, and sides including lanttulaatikko (mashed swede). In the northern regions of Finland don’t be surprised to find reindeer on the Christmas menu either! Once all the feasting is done it's time to hit the sauna in true Finnish style to cleanse the body of all that delicious Christmas indulgence.


The Mexican Christmas celebrations start early on 3 December with nine days of festivities in honour of Mexico’s patron saint the Virgin of Guadalupe and culminates with a huge feast on 12 December. Next in line are las posadas from 16-24 December, which are processions designed to re-enact the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph searching for shelter in Bethlehem. It is also a time for partying and food including tamales, a corn-based sweet or savoury snack steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, which are found throughout Central and South America, and buñuelos; deep-fried sweet dough snacks often flavoured with aniseed and sprinkled with sugar or doused in sugar syrup.

Unlike in Europe, Christmas dishes in Central America are spicy, and Mexico is no exception. After Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the last day of las posadas, there is a delicious feast that includes everything from stews of bacalao, dried salted cod and pozole, a pork and hominy stew, to pavo; roasted native turkey served with a spicy mole sauce. After all that feasting, Christmas Day is spent enjoying the rich selection of leftovers, but Christmas isn’t officially over until 6 January when the Three Wise Men (not Santa) deliver presents. On this day families will eat a rosca de reyes, a sweet bread studded with dried fruit and shaped into a ring.


Christmas in Argentina falls during the summer and the big Christmas meal held on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) doesn’t begin until the sun has firmly set. The food served on this occasion draws heavily from Argentina’s mix of European influences, with the beloved dish of vitel tonné no exception. With Italian origins, this dish consists of pieces of veal covered in a sauce made from tuna, mayonnaise and anchovies and is commonly served alongside salads and empanadas. Argentina is of course synonymous with the asado and no Argentinian Christmas is without it. A typical asado can see a variety of cuts of beef, pork and chicken served with delicious chimichurri sauce and a cornucopia of salads. Niño envueltos are another Argentine favourite on Noche Buena and are steaks of beef stuffed with minced meat, spices, boiled eggs and onions, shaped into rolls and then griddled or baked.

Christmas dishes in Central America are spicy, and Mexico is no exception

Katie Smith

There are meat-free options on offer, too, such as tomates rellenos; tomatoes hollowed out and stuffed with a rice mixture and then baked. As the home of dulce de leche, those with a sweet tooth won’t be disappointed by Argentina’s range of Christmas desserts, which typically include panettone, another Italian import, and turón, a sweet nougat brimming with honey and peanuts. The meal is, of course, accompanied by one of Argentina’s most famous exports – wine. For something more unusual there is also a traditional Christmas drink made from cider and pineapple juice called ananá fizz.

Extra helpings

A few more unusual delicacies enjoyed around the world at Christmas.


One Ghanaian soup served on Christmas day contains a slightly unusual ingredient – African land snails!


On Christmas day möndlugrautur, a traditional Icelandic rice pudding very similar to the Danish risalamande, is served with an almond hidden inside.


Puto bumbong is a particularly popular street food during the festive period, especially on Christmas Eve. The snack is made from purple coloured glutinous rice which has been steamed in bamboo tubes and is served with crispy ground coconut and sugar.


Black cake (or Caribbean Christmas cake) is a truly festive fruit cake infused with dark rum and locally sourced spices. The cake’s name comes from its intensely dark colour that originally came from the use of burnt sugar.