Samui Wining & Dining
Christmas is Coming

But what’s on your plate depends on where you come from!

 

4Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. It’s the celebration of the birth of Christ. Or at least that’s what it has come to mean. And, because a large part of the globe purports to be Christian, this is a festival that’s looked forward to in many parts of the world. But this is where things become both strange and amusing. A lot of countries that aren’t Christian have also adopted Christmas – Thailand for one. And then, it’s also most unlikely that Jesus Christ was born anywhere near the 25th December, anyway.

      Respectfully leaving religious convictions aside, there has been a great deal of scholarly research into the historical figure of Jesus. There is nothing in the scriptures to pinpoint the date of his birth, but the fact there were shepherds watching their flocks, plus Jesus’ parents were going to Bethlehem to register for a Roman census, puts it three or four months before December. On the other hand, a very great many people were already letting rip around the 25th, long before Jesus came along!

       And it was the fact that there were so many pagan festivals around this date – and so many people already celebrating in their own ways – that finalised the date for Christmas. The early Roman Church did all it could to steer its flock away from these deeply-rooted ceremonies. And all over the northern hemisphere one of these pagan high points was the Winter Solstice, the day that the sun is furthest away from the earth – the shortest day of the year. The ‘rebirth of the sun’ was celebrated everywhere, from ancient Babylon’s ‘Feast of the Son of Isis’ to the early Romans getting down and dirty with their debauched ‘Saturnalia’ (which was definitely not good clean family fun), and druid tradition observed ‘Alban Arthan’. It wasn’t actually until as late as 336 AD that the Christian Church decided that the 25th December seemed to be close enough to all the other festivities to compromise, and the first official ‘Christmases’ began to appear.

      This is one of the reasons that traditional festive fare varies so much from one country to another. Another reason is rooted in the prevailing religion – and that not only affects the food but the actual date of the event, too. Religions which follow the older ‘Julian’ (Roman) calendar (such as Russian Orthodox, Coptic Egyptian) celebrate Christmas on the 7th January. Plus, of course, the sort of food you eat also depends on whether you’re in a warm or cold country, and also if you’re surrounded by sea – in which case substitute fish for turkey! All in all, ‘traditional’ Christmas meals are quite a complex subject.

      Although, speaking of eating turkey, in view of all the factors above, it’s surprising just how many countries actually do feature turkey as a centrepiece. It’s believed that the practice of eating a large bird goes back to the original pagan celebrations. Geese were the fowl of choice in those times, as they were naturally plentiful all over Europe. But in the 17th century the turkeys, which seemed to be hopping about wild all over the new nation of America, quickly found their way back to Europe. The upper classes adopted these expensive new birds in preference to their customary swans. And, today, they’ll be found on the table for Christmas in temperate climates everywhere.

      But let’s sidetrack for just a moment towards those countries which don’t celebrate an actual ‘Christmas’. Thailand is a nation which expects no ‘annual holidays’. Many people work six, if not seven, days a week. And that means they grab every spare occasion for a day off, official or otherwise, that they can. Three separate New Year breaks! Plus a day for Christmas. The Thais don’t go for any special dishes, here. But let’s hear it for Japan! They’re in much the same boat. However, due to some very cunning marketing and TV promotions, the Japanese now all are heading for the malls and a KFC outlet. KFC and Christmas now go hand-in-hand in Japan – I wonder how long before this catches on in Thailand, too!

       I could ramble on forever here about each different country and all their featured Christmas dishes – there are so many of them. But rather than boring you to sleep, let’s pick out a few of the more interesting ones. We’ll highlight the main item and then chuck in one of their more colourful traditional bits, too.

       South America has wild turkeys aplenty, but here they’re served-up with a bit of a difference. All the food is rich and spicy, with the turkey being marinated in rum with onions, garlic, tomatoes and lime juice, and served with brightly coloured rice and vegetables.

      Heading to colder climes, in the Russian Federation many people fast before the 25th and then embark upon a long 12-course meal (one in honour of each of the 12 apostles). This includes fish, borscht, cooked dried fruit and a special Christmas Eve delicacy known as ‘kutya’, made from whole-wheat grains seasoned with honey and crushed poppy seeds.

       But, in the area around the sunny Mediterranean, fish is the order of the day. Portugal looks forward to their national holiday-dish of ‘bacalhau’ (dried cod) followed by fried slices of white bread soaked in eggs and wine, called ‘rabanadas’. In Spain the main dish is usually white sea bass roasted with breadcrumbs, with traditional seasonal treats relying on almonds and marzipan, such as ‘turrón’, a sweet similar to nougat and made from honey and almonds.

         And American families, of course, all sit down around a turkey. Is that so? Well, it might be traditional, but the reality is otherwise. There are so many regions and cultures in this gigantic nation that there really is no ‘standard’ dish. Virginia has oyster and ham pie, Hawaii enjoys turkey teriyaki, and the Midwest includes dishes with Scandinavian roots, such as ‘lutefisk’ and mashed ‘rutabaga’ (turnip). And in the south-western regions a traditional Christmas dinner usually includes such Mexican morsels as ‘posole’, ‘tamales’, ‘empanaditas’ and ‘biscochitos’!

         All of which only leaves us to wish you all a very merry Christmas on Samui. Or perhaps we should say Shèngdàn kuàilè! Haengboghan Keuliseumaseu! Cчастливого Рождества! Ukiortame Pivdluaritlo! Felices Navidades! Joyeux Nöel! Hyvaa Joula! Zalig Kerstfeest! Srozhdestvom Kristovym! And last but not least, Fröhliche Weinachten!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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