In Finland, they feast on baked ham and spiced carrot casserole. Spaniards stuff their turkey with pork, veal, and decadent truffles. In Denmark, Christmas dinner ends with a dish of hot almond-cherry rice pudding. And in New Zealand, where Christmas is a toasty summertime affair, they whip out the barbecues and chow down on crisp, smoky fish and shrimp.
Whether you choose to munch on mince pies with the English or zoom down to Costa Rica for melt-in-your-mouth tamales, you’re in for one humdinger of a Christmas banquet. Here are some of the most unique, mouth-watering Christmas dishes around the world.
Sweden’s julbord, or Christmas table, is about as crammed and intricate as a Christmas table can get. Janssons frestelse is a holiday staple—a creamy potato gratin with herring, onions, and bread crumbs. Julskinka, the Christmas ham, is boiled and glazed to perfection. And of course, one mustn’t forget the glogg (mulled wine). Never forget the glogg.
Codfish and boiled potatoes are the name of the Christmas dinner game across Portugal. The real treat, however, comes in the form of dessert. Lampreia de ovos is a sweet egg cake (we’re talking 30 to 50 egg yolks per cake) formed into the shape of a cute, cuddly, blood-sucking lamprey. Why so many egg yolks, and why a dessert that resembles a fanged underwater menace? Rumor has it that Portuguese nuns discovered egg whites to be particularly useful helping to keep their habits wrinkle-free. Not wanting to waste the yolks, they invented a confection that would make use of them. Fish have been a staple of Portuguese cuisine for thousands of years, and the earliest Portuguese cookbook (from the 16th century) features one fish recipe—for lamprey.
Those seeking a less sea creaturey dessert can partake of the country’s customary Bolo Rei (King Cake): a fluffy white cake decorated with crystallized fruit and named in honor of the Magi. Variations include the Broken King Cake, topped with cinnamon and chilacayote jam.
A hearty spiced kale stew is just the thing to combat the chill of a German winter. At Christmas, this stew accompanies roast duck, goose, or rabbit with dumplings and red cabbage. For dessert, Germans prepare stollen—a sweet bread with candied fruit, rum, and spices, covered with a dusting of powdered sugar. Invented in Dresden as far back as the 1400s, the bread features prominently in the city’s Christmastime festivities. Each year during Stollenfest, the Dresden bakers create a giant two-ton stollen and parade it through the city on a horse-drawn carriage. Following the procession, a master baker slices the loaf it with a five-foot-long knife that weighs 12 pounds. One-pound slices sell for €5–€6.
Classic French cuisine is the epitome of decadence and precision, and Christmas dinner is no exception. Yuletide tables in France feature Coquilles Saint-Jacques—scallops in cream sauce with herbs and cheese, served as appetizers in their shells. The main dish generally consists of roasted fowl (capon, turkey, pheasant, or guinea fowl), often stuffed with chestnuts and served with vegetables. And for dessert, the time-honored Buche de Noel (yule log). This visually stunning white cake filled and frosted with chocolate buttercream carries with it centuries’ worth of French history. For thousands of years, Europeans brought home the largest log they could find to burn in their hearths on Christmas. Over time, fireplaces grew smaller and people stopped burning these massive yule logs—opting, instead, for the more edible variety.
Southern Italy’s Feast of Seven Fishes is a culinary Christmas Eve custom rooted in Catholicism. For centuries, Roman Catholics have been expected to abstain from eating meat and dairy on the eve of certain holy days. In keeping with this tradition, residents of southern Italy prepare an ornate seven-course seafood extravaganza consisting of such delicacies as calamari, linguini with clams, breaded mussels, cured salmon, and shrimp scampi. The number seven features prominently in the Bible, indicating sacraments, days of the Creation, and the deadly sins. It also represents the number of days Mary and Joseph took to travel to Bethlehem.
Upon returning home after midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Maltese celebrate the impending holiday with a cup (or bowl) of Imbuljuta tal-Qastan. They make this fragrant hot chocolate-chestnut drink by boiling chestnuts with chocolate and adding ground cloves and grated citrus rind.
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A smoked leg of lamb has been the norm on Icelandic Christmas tables for decades. However, recent years have seen families experiment with rock ptarmigan (a grouse-like gamebird) and glazed racks of ham. Delicate laufabrauð (leaf bread) is another traditional Christmas offering. Icelanders decorate these round, wafer-thin wheat disks with intricate hand-cut patterns and deep-fry them, serving them warm with butter. Those breads deemed too beautiful to eat are strung with ribbon and hung as decorations.
Across the Greek islands, Christmas dinner kicks off with a bowl of avgolemono chicken soup—a creamy blend of chicken, lemon, egg, and rice. Roasted lamb or pork acts as the centerpiece of the table, though families in the northern regions often serve dolmas (stuffed cabbage rolls) filled with ground pork. Christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is traditional Christmas cuisine in many Greek Orthodox homes. These loaves are packed with dried fruit, nuts, and spices and decorated with a dough cross.
Once you’ve had Swiss fondue chinoise, you’ll never go back. Strips of thinly sliced beef are cooked in seasoned broth and dipped, fondue-style, into cocktail, curry, and tartar sauces. Follow these up with a handful of lemon shortbread cookies, chocolate truffles, or spiced biscuits and you’ve got the makings of a perfect Christmas meal.
To ward off bad luck, people in the Czech Republic set their Christmas Eve tables for an even number of guests. Fish soup is the first course on most Czech menus, followed by the prized fried carp—the symbol of Czech Christmas—with potato salad. It is rumored that those who have managed to fast all day until dinner will see a vision of the zlaté prasátko, or golden pig, which is thought to bring good luck.
It’s not Christmas in Argentina without vitel tone, a platter of sliced veal covered in a blanket of creamy tuna sauce and capers. Brought to the country by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s, this dish is served cold as a light, refreshing summer Christmas course.
In Peru, the traditional Christmastime dinner takes place on Nochebuena—Christmas Eve—after the 10pm Misa de Gallo, or Rooster Mass. (It’s said that the only time a rooster crowed at midnight was to announce the birth of Jesus). Upon returning home from church, Peruvians dine on roast turkey, tamales, garlic rice, and applesauce. And for dessert? Peruvian hot chocolate (with cinnamon and cloves) and a thick wedge of panettone—an Italian holiday sweet bread.
In 1974, the marketing team at KFC unveiled a brand new Japanese holiday campaign: “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii,” or “Kentucky for Christmas.” The trend quickly caught on, and now KFC is the traditional Christmas meal supplier for the 1% or so Japanese who identify as Christian. Lines for Christmas KFC can be up to two hours long, and many people have taken to preordering their meals.
Want to learn more about culinary traditions around the world? We’ve got you covered!