Do you know that some families begin preparations for Christmas Eve dinner with a trip to the bathroom? Others bring in the new year by hiding a coin or toy inside a cake for their families to find. Since I started living abroad, I’ve met many people from all around the world and am fascinated with each new tradition that I am introduced to. The holidays are a major time when these customs emerge, and I am always curious to learn more. Whether you’re looking for a new tradition to spice up your own festivities, or you’re simply interested in reading more, here are seven international holiday traditions to feed your curiosity.
Roasted Piglet in Spain
Cochinillo Asado al Horno is a popular dish in Spain and served on Christmas Eve, or La Noche Buena. In English, this translates into “piglet roasted in a wood-burning oven.” Cochinillo Asado clearly isn’t the dish for vegetarians, and even some meat-eaters may have reservations about eating a suckling pig; but those who enjoy it swear by the tender meat and fresh, organic quality.
If you’re ever in Madrid, try this holiday favorite at Botin. (Being Christmas Eve isn’t a prerequisite.) Not only does it get a unanimous vote as one of the best restaurants for Cochinillo Asado, but it was established in 1725 and marked as the oldest restaurant in the world.
Since a Spanish Christmas wouldn’t be complete without several different courses, expect your roasted piglet to be surrounded by tapas, starters, and entrees filled with lamb, beef, seafood, and an assortment of vegetables.
Christmas Eve Carp in Slovakia
Luck be a carp, tonight! Ok, maybe not tonight, but carp is the bringer of luck when eaten on Christmas Eve in Slovakia. In fact, luck is the driving force behind a few traditions in this central European country. But first, the fish.
After purchasing the carp a few days before the holiday, it lives in the household tub up until Christmas Eve. Then the head of the home (usually the patriarch) is responsible for killing and cleaning the fish. Once ready to be cooked, the carp is cut into horseshoe-shaped pieces (again for luck), breaded, and fried. Scales from the fish are removed pre-cooking, dried, and placed under each place setting. The dinner guests save their own scales in their wallets, where they stay for the next year. It represents prosperity and — yup, you guessed it — more luck. The fish is served with potato salad, cabbage and/or lentil soup, wafers with honey, apples, and chestnuts.
While this is a Slovakian tradition, it’s not convenient or preferable to everyone. Those who choose not to host a fish for a few days simply buy one from the market and remove it from their fridge on Christmas Eve.
If it looks like a turkey but tastes more like a chicken, it’s a chester! This is usually the main centerpiece dish at Christmas dinner in Brazil, yet many people have a hard time describing what they are eating. Chester is actually a genetically modified cross between different chickens that produces a larger bird. The Brazilian company Perdigão bought the rights to this species and has been raising them since.
Chesters are rare in the US; but if you do find one, the cooking method would be the same as your favorite oven-baked chicken or turkey recipe. To give it a Brazilian touch, incorporate fruits and tropical spices to the rub and garnish.
Honey and Butter Cookies in Greece
Two holiday staples in Greece are cookies called kourabiedes and melomakarona, which are both small, baked bites packed with flavor. Filled with honey, almonds, cinnamon, butter, and a number of other aromatic ingredients, these may be the ultimate Christmas cookie duo! Of course, you could just choose one, but where is the fun in that?
Since we can never have too many sweets, here is a popular treat from the Neapolitan region of Italy. Like melomakarona, these bites are flavored with honey. Unlike the Greek sweets, these are marble-sized balls of fried dough dusted with sugar sprinkles. Struffoli also contain lemon and orange zest, which add a burst of citrus to each tiny piece. Italians usually place them on a large, flat plate; but sometimes you see a little creativity at Christmas time. My favorite is the Struffoli cornucopia (with an edible horn).
Epiphany Cake in Switzerland
Also known as the King’s cake, this post-New Year sweet goes by a different name in each region in Switzerland, from Dreikönigskuchen near the German border to Galette des Rois near France. No matter where you are, however, the idea is the same.
The cake is shared and eaten in celebration of Epiphany, a Catholic and Christian holiday that marks the end of the Christmas season. Also called “Three Kings Day,” it represents the visit made to the baby Jesus by the three wise men or three kings. On Epiphany Day, which falls on January 6, families honor the long ago visit of the three kings by baking or buying a cake that is shared among the family and friends present. A plastic toy king (or a gold coin) is hidden inside the dough pre-baking, and the person who finds the treasure in their slice is King or Queen for the day. The cake also comes with a cardboard crown, which the new King or Queen is supposed to wear through their “reign.”
Crémasse From Haiti
What are the holidays without a little spirit? If you like the spiced quality and texture of eggnog but not the egg, then you may like crémasse. Hailing from Haiti, this beverage is popular at social gatherings and holidays. It’s usually enjoyed cold, after dinner, and alongside dessert. This thick drink has been described as an adult milkshake by some and delicious by all.