Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without your favorite Christmas food traditions on the table, but the food you eat might seem out of place in another part of the world. That’s because every country follows the lead of their past generations, creating traditional recipes to celebrate the holiday. Christmas is tied closely to family, so it makes sense to stick with tradition and cook meals that bring back memories of Christmases past.
Whether you’re just curious, want to diversify your Christmas menu or want to reconnect with your heritage, check out the different types of food eaten for Christmas around the world.
Since pre-Columbian times, Mexican women have spent hours cooking tamales with secret family recipes. The meat-filled masa dough wrapped in cornhusks takes a lot of time and effort, but they are necessary for holiday celebrations. The tamales are steamed to turn the dough into a soft, cake-like shell.
Pork and beef are the most prominent types of filling for the dish, but the fillings vary by region. Tamales in Tabasco are often filled with garfish and Oaxaca, which is in the southwestern region, is known for serving up chicken and onion tamales with mole negro wrapped in plantain leaf wrappers.
Another Mexican dish that sometimes shows up on the Christmas menu is chiles en nogada. The dish starts with a fire-roasted poblano pepper, which is then stuffed with meat and topped with a white, creamy walnut sauce. A garnish of pomegranate seeds then dots the top. Not only does the green, white and red color scheme of the dish match the colors of the Mexican flag, but it also features festive coloring perfect for the holiday season.
Christmas is widely celebrated in Venezuela, thanks to a strong Catholic influence. Families gather on Christmas Eve in a celebratory meal called Noche Buena, where hallacas are common. Hallacas resemble tamales with their outer plantain leaf wrappings and cornmeal crust. Inside, the dish features meat, olives, raisins, peppers, capers and pickled vegetables for a mix of flavors. Instead of steaming, like the traditional Mexican tamale, hallacas go into hot water to boil. The dish is a staple at Christmastime.
Brazil: Ceia de Natal
Christmas falls during Brazil’s hot summer months, but that doesn’t stop Brazilians from serving up a huge turkey dinner for Christmas. The dish, known as ceia de natal, takes on quite a unique flavor. The dish gets its flavor from a champagne and spice marinade. Side dishes include rice, nuts, vegetables and fruit.
Argentina: Vitel Tone
Christmas gets a loud welcome in Argentina, with many people setting off fireworks at midnight on Christmas Eve. Tradition also dictates a late-night Christmas Eve meal as the main holiday celebration. Argentinean Christmas feasts often include vitel tone, a veal dish served in tuna sauce with capers. Vitel tone is served as a chilled appetizer. It also makes an appearance for New Year’s celebrations for many families in Argentina.
The dish actually has connections to Italy. Italian immigrants introduced the dish, originally called vitello tonnato, in the late 1800s and early 1900s when they arrived in Argentina.
Puerto Rico: Lechon
Like many other countries, Puerto Rico families gather on Christmas Eve for a Noche Buena celebration instead of having a large celebration on Christmas Day. Lechon is the Puerto Rican name for a roast suckling pig. It’s a popular dish for Christmas in Puerto Rico. The pig takes almost constant attention from at least two people and the roasting process often starts early in the morning. Meanwhile, the women work in the kitchen to cook the side dishes for the holiday feast.
Cuba: Crema Da Vie
Cubans welcome the Christmas season with a fun, festive, joyous atmosphere. The tradition in Cuba is to raise a glass of crema da vie during the Christmas season. Simply put, crema da vie is the Cuban version of eggnog. The standard recipe uses sweetened condensed milk, rum, egg yolks and sugar syrup.
Guatemala is another country known for a sweet treat at Christmastime, but it’s not a cookie like you might find at a U.S. Christmas party. Bunuelos are sweet fried bread fritters covered in a sweet syrup. Guatemalans enjoy the sweet treat with the bangs of firecrackers and ringing of church bells in the background, sounds that are common in the country during the Christmas season.
Ethiopia: Doro Wat
Christmas in Ethiopia doesn’t fall on December 25 like many other parts of the world. Instead, Ethiopians celebrate on January 7 based on the Julian calendar, a common tradition among Orthodox Christians.
An Ethiopian Christmas often includes a dish called doro wat. This spicy chicken stew is typically served on flat bread called injera and sometimes includes hard-boiled eggs. Dinner guests pick up pieces of the injera topped with the stew to eat this traditional Christmas meal.
Many Italian-American families enjoy the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, which consists of several different fish dishes. While the Feast of Seven Fishes isn’t a tradition in Italy, fish is a common meal on Christmas Eve in Italy, since meat is not usually eaten that night. Salted cod, called baccala, is popular, as is zuppa di pesce, which is a soup made with fish and shellfish. The specific fish dishes served depend largely on the specific region of Italy.
What would Christmas be without a sweet ending to the meal? Many Italians enjoy a panettone after mass on Christmas Eve. The Christmas sponge cake features a dry texture with fruit baked into it.
German Christmas celebrations are known for a sweet cake called stollen. This fruit cake version includes rum and spices with a sweet, sugary coating. The fruity cake often has a hump on top to represent the wise men’s camels. Stollen started back in the 15th century, when people gave the sweet, fruity cake as a gift.
Iceland: Leg of Lamb
If you’re looking for a new type of meat to serve for your Christmas meal, take a cue from Iceland and serve a leg of roast lamb. The leg of lamb takes the prime spot in the center of the table at the Yule meal on Christmas Day. Leaf bread, made of thin dough with intricate cut patterns, is a fried bread dish that is also popular in Iceland on Christmas.
Get your sweet tooth ready. Spain is another country known for its sweet Christmas treats. Turron is a nougat dessert made with honey, sugar, egg whites and almonds. The sweet Christmas turron tradition often comes in a rectangular shape, although round cakes of turron are also popular too.
While the ingredients are similar from one recipe to the next, turron may differ in consistency. Some turron, known as Alicante or turron duro, has a hard, crunchy texture similar to a peanut brittle. This type of turron uses larger chunks of almonds. The Jijona or turron blando version uses an almond paste and oil to form a softer, chewier texture.
Within the two types of turron, you may find different variations or flavors, such as praline or chocolate. Biting into a piece of turron is like a little gift of flavor — you never know what you might get.
France: Buche de Noel
The signature Christmas dish in France comes after the meal. It is the buche de noel, which is a cake that looks like a log. Buttercream frosting covers the outside, and the dessert usually includes holiday decorations. The tradition represents the Yule logs that are traditionally burned during Christmastime.
The French don’t live on cake alone, however. Families gather on the 25th to enjoy big family dinners. Coquilles Saint-Jacques, a dish combining scallops, herbs and cheese, often serves as an appetizer for French Christmas celebrations. Other items on a typical French Christmas menu include turkey with chestnuts, foie gras and oysters, among other French favorites.
Ireland: Spiced Beef
The traditional Irish Christmas Day meal typically includes turkey, ham, roasted veggies and stuffing. The next day on St. Stephen’s Day, the Irish dig in to a traditional spiced beef dish using a fruit and spice rub to infuse flavor into the meal.
Japan: Kentucky Fried Chicken
Wait, what, it’s true. Kentucky Fried Chicken plays a starring role on many a Japanese table on Christmas, thanks to a very successful marketing campaign in the 70s. The Colonel even starts taking orders two months ahead of time. Christmas isn’t a huge holiday in Japan, and most schools and businesses keep normal hours. That doesn’t stop families from dining on fried chicken, though. If you’re tired of roasting a turkey for Christmas dinner, follow Japan’s lead and take a break this year with KFC.
Christianity is not common in China, so major cities are the primary places where Christmas is celebrated. The country does have some Christmas traditions, though. It may sound simple, but apples make a big impression in China on Christmas Eve — many people give apples to one another. The connection comes from the word for Christmas Eve, Ping An Ye, and apple, Ping Guo, which sound similar in Chinese. Stores sell colorfully wrapped apples ready for gift giving.
Romania: Ciorba de Perisoare
On December 20, Romanian families celebrate St. Ignatius’ Day. As part of the celebration, families who raise pigs kill one of the swine that day, using the meat to cook up delicious Christmas dishes. For this reason, pork dominates the menu in Romania during the holiday season.
Ciorba de perisoare is one specialty dish that fits with the pork theme. The dish features pork meatballs swimming in a slightly sour vegetable broth.
Sarmale is another popular Christmas dish in Romania. It consists of ground pork stuffed inside cabbage leaves. Sarmale traditionally comes with a side of polenta.
Do as the Russians do on Christmas Eve, and enjoy a bowl of porridge, but not too early. Traditionally, Russians fast on Christmas Eve until they see the first star of the night. Then it’s time to dig in to the traditional porridge, consisting of a rice or wheat base. Toppings for the porridge include fruit, nuts, honey, poppy seeds and occasionally fruit jellies.
If you don’t mind the mess and want the full Russian Christmas experience, fling a spoonful of the porridge at the ceiling. If it sticks, congratulate yourself for it is believed to mean good luck. You may need some luck cleaning the porridge off the ceiling, but connecting to the past is well worth the mess.
Philippines: Puto Bumbong
Many traditional recipes make it to the table on Christmas Eve in the Philippines. Known as Nochebuena, the meal usually happens after midnight mass and can last until sunrise. One notable dish is puto bumbong. Purple rice steamed in bamboo tubes goes with butter, sugar and coconut for a sweet touch.
Christmas hits right during the Australian summer, so Aussies take the opportunity to fire up the barbie to grill up Christmas dinner. Turkey, lamb and prawns are popular options. Other Australian families eat a more traditional meal similar to the British with roast and yummy side dishes.
Chile: Pan de Pascua
Its position in the southern hemisphere means Chile celebrates Christmas right during the summer months. A Christmas celebration in Chile most likely includes Pan de Pascua. This sweet treat is a fruitcake served as Christmas dessert, following a big family meal highlighted by turkey and roasted chicken.
How do Chileans wash down their Pan de Pascua? They drink a traditional Christmas beverage called monkey’s tail or Cola de Mono. The drink mixes together coffee, milk, liquor, cinnamon and sugar. The drink makes an appearance throughout the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.
Albania: Pumpkin and Walnut Pie
In Albania, the star dish of Christmas day is a pumpkin and walnut pie creation. The Albanian version isn’t quite like a traditional American pumpkin pie. The ingredient list includes pumpkin, vegetable oil or butter, salt, black pepper and sometimes oregano. The pumpkin mixture goes inside homemade pastry layers. Then, walnuts go on top, and the layers are then folded before being baked.
Vietnam: Chicken Soup
While Buddhism is the primary religion in Vietnam, Christmas is still a very popular holiday. This is likely due to Vietnam’s status as a French colony until its independence in 1954. Like many other countries, Christmas Eve is more prevalent for Christmas parties and gatherings. Many families sit down to a large dinner on that night.
Chicken soup or chicken broth with wontons is a common option, but the meal includes a lot more. Other common Christmas foods in Vietnam include sticky rice, pork buns, roast goose, rice crepes and Christmas pudding. The French influence is found in the Christmas dessert — the buche de Noel. Just like the French, the Vietnamese enjoy the chocolate cake shaped like a log.
Czech Republic: Fish Soup and Fried Fish
Christmas Eve dinner is the traditional holiday meal in the Czech Republic. Per tradition, families fast until the dinner, when they gather to dine on fish soup and fried fish. Carp is the fish of choice in many families. The traditional side dish is potato salad, which typically includes peas, onions, cooked carrots, parsley, celery, pickles, eggs and mayo.
What’s on your Christmas menu this year? If you feel adventurous, serve up one of these Christmas dishes from around the world. Trying a dish from another country is a great way to connect to your heritage or appreciate the cultures of other countries.