North Americans often cook a Christmas dinner similar to the Thanksgiving meal—turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, Brussels sprouts or another vegetable, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Ham or beef sometimes replaces the turkey because Turkey Day was officially a month earlier. Then you have all the nogs, ciders, gingerbread what-have-you, and other treats. Each family savors its own traditional dishes, but there’s usually some incarnation of this idea.
Unlike Thanksgiving, Christmas is celebrated across the globe—with other foods. People carry on those cultural traditions when they move to the U.S. and pass down their holiday favorites to their children. Although the holiday is illegal or rarely celebrated in a few countries, where people do observe it, you know there’s going to be something special to eat nearby. Christmas comes in all sorts of flavors (Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan?!?!), whether it’s celebrated as a religious, commercial, or all-inclusive holiday.*
Besides plucking some dinner ideas from our comprehensive Christmas recipe page, consider introducing a dish from another culture into your traditional dinner. It’s eye-opening. (And it’s a big world—despite what that catchy song insists—so see even more international Christmas recipes for inspiration.)
* By no means is this list comprehensive, nor does everyone in each listed country celebrate this way, if at all.
After a weeklong no-meat fast, some Armenians enjoy a light Christmas Eve meal called khetum, which includes rice, a fish dish called ishkhanatsoog, chickpeas, yogurt soup, dried nuts, and candied fruit-and-nut desserts that hang from string called rojik. When meat is introduced on Christmas day, they might have poulgeur pilav, a lamb and rice dish, according to Synonym. Try this rojik recipe.
During the sunny Australian Christmas season, Christmas dinner can be a fusion of traditional English food like ham, turkey, and sides, along with more summer-seasonally appropriate seafood, like prawns, as well as mangoes and cherries, eaten outside. Barbecues are common too.
Brazilians often serve pork, turkey, salads, and fresh and dried fruits. There’s usually a rice dish cooked with raisins, nuts, and herbs, along with a good spoon of farofa, which is a seasoned manioc flour. Try this Christmas rice recipe (which is also enjoyed in nearby countries).
Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 because they follow the Coptic calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, according to Tour Egypt. All Coptic feasts come after a period of vegan-style fasting, when they eat no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs. So afterward, they go all-out on the animal products. Fata, a lamb soup which contains bread, rice, garlic and boiled lamb meat, is popular. And they often take kahk, special sweet biscuits, as gifts at gatherings in people’s homes (these are also popular for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr). Try this fata recipe.
Like Coptics, Ethiopians who celebrate Christmas do it on Jan. 7, and it’s a less commercialized affair with much religious attention. But of course, there’s still the Christmas day food: Often a spicy stew, such as doro wat, and injera bread, a flat, slightly spongy, round bread made from teff used to scoop up the stew. No utensils needed. Try this doro wat recipe.
Typically there’s a turkey and sides similar to American Thanksgiving, but the desserts are where the two countries differ the most. There are mince pies, Christmas cake, and plum pudding, an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages, according to the History channel. Back in the day, suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are “plum,” meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake, and topped with cream. These days it can have any kind of fruit mixture inside. It’s also called Christmas pudding. Try the BBC’s Classic Christmas Pudding recipe. Or try mincemeat pies.
Matthew Walker Luxury Pudding, $27.49 on Amazon
Try your own Christmas pud, without pudding in all the work.
While Christians are quite a minority in India, they still have many of their own traditions. They celebrate with a a prawn or chicken biryani and curries. Desserts and candies called kuswar, can range from spiced cashew macaroons, fruit cakes, and rose cookies to newrio, which are sweet dumplings stuffed with palm sugar, sweet grated coconut, and sesame seeds.
Only about 1 percent of the country’s citizens are estimated to be Christians and celebrate Christmas, but they have a wacky tradition. Thanks to a successful marketing campaign in 1974 — “Kentucky for Christmas!” — they head to the fast-food joint, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to eat fried chicken and wine. The packages today have elevated to include cake and sometimes wine or Champagne, according to the Smithsonian.
A 12-dish Christmas Eve dinner is traditional, representing either the 12 months of the year or Jesus’ 12 apostles. There are kūčiukai, these slightly sweet, small cracker-like biscuits made from leavened dough and poppy seed. They’re often served with milk or on top of the milk. That used to be poppy seed milk because animal products weren’t eaten at this time, but now cow’s milk is more common. Dinners include herring salads, and kissel, a cranberry drink. Try this kūčiukai recipe.
Tamales are popular at Christmas, as well as bacalao, which is a dried, salted codfish dish of European origin. Bacalao a la Vizcaina is a popular recipe in which the cod is stewed with tomatoes, capers, olives, and potatoes, but it may be prepared in a variety of ways. Try this Bacalao con Tomate recipe.
Game meats and roast pork can be part of the Christmas feast, as well as fondue or the practice of grilling meat and vegetable pieces at the dining table, called gourmetten. But what is most traditional about this Dutch holiday are the treats, especially during Sinterklaas (which has a controversial blackface aspect to it, but we’re not going there). Speculaas is a quite the popular Christmas cookie, sometimes shaped like windmills, and usually containing an array of spices such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, aniseed, and nutmeg. Try this speculaas recipe.
Milliard Raclette Grill for 8, $84.99 on Amazon
A fondue fete has nothing on a raclette party.
Panettone, the Italian Christmas bread, has become popular in Peru (where it’s known as panetón and can be found in chocolate-filled versions as well as more traditional fruit-studded domes). You might wash it down with Christmas chocolatada, a hot chocolate prepared with sweetened condensed milk, brandy, heavy cream, butter, spices, and whipped cream. Try this Christmas chocolatada recipe.
Related Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Peruvian Food
Fish soup for Christmas Eve is what celebrants often eat. In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches, they’ll have koljivo, a boiled wheat. Česnica is a popular baked good, a Christmas soda bread with a silver coin to bring health and good luck baked in the bread.
South Koreans typically eat local dishes such as kimchi, bean paste, hot peppers, and Korean barbecue. South Koreans also enjoy a cream-covered sponge cake or an ice-cream cake purchased from a bakery.
Trinidad and Tobago
In Trinidad and Tobago, they’ll go for ham, pasteles like sweet or savory paime, black fruit cake, and sweet breads, along with traditional drinks such as sorrel, ginger beer, and ponche de crème, according to the country’s National Library and Information System Authority. The ham is the main item on the Christmas menu with sorrel to accompany it. Try this sweet paime recipe.
Related Video: This Is How Christmas Is Done in Cuba
Header image courtesy of esp_imaging / E+ / Getty Images