In Latin America it’s spicy tamales.
In the Czech Republic it’s a rich feast of breadcrumb-encrusted carp.
When it comes to Christmas dinner, there are almost as many varieties as there are cultures.
Even the stalwart British tradition of turkey with all the trimmings gives way to pancakes in the Netherlands, goose in Germany and fish in Italy.
From meatless feasts to “fur coat” fish, here are just some of the ways people celebrate Christmas around the world.
Weihnachtsgans, or German Christmas goose, is the traditional fowl that anchors family feasts around the country, though roast duck is becoming increasingly popular too.
“My Mom makes weihnachtsgans every year — to this day,” says Max Hess, a Milwaukee-based German-American who visits Germany every year for Christmas.
“It’s German tradition to give our gifts on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, so we eat the goose and, as soon as it gets dark, proceed to share gifts with friends and family.”
“Gourmetten is a typical Dutch Christmas dinner tradition, where a group of people sit at a table and cook their own little dishes in small pans [atop a large hot plate],” says Maartje Frederiks, CEO of the meal delivery group HelloFresh Benelux.
It is reminiscent of the Swiss and French raclette, though instead of grilling cheese on a communal grill, Dutch people grill a variety of meat, fish and vegetables.
“Additionally, the Dutchies like to bake small omelets or pancakes, and dress the experience with a variety of different sauces and bread with garlic butter,” says Frederiks.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, which occurs on Christmas Eve, is a gut-busting ritual kept in many parts of Italy and the Italian-American community.
“It’s a tradition that both my Chef de Cuisine Joe Flamm and I grew up with, being from large Italian American families,” says Tony Mantuano, chef-partner of acclaimed restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago.
“It’s important that there are seven different ‘fishes’ prepared in seven different ways. Dishes are fried, cured, served in tomato sauce, etc., and the dishes are served throughout the evening.”
Feasts in some homes are known to go past the seven-course mark, sometimes swelling to 12 or 13 courses.
Nevertheless, there are some ingredients that are non-negotiable.
“There has to be baccala [salt cod] without a doubt! Calamari, too,” Mantuano says.
In many parts of Asia, pork is as much a food staple as rice and the Philippines is no exception.
It’s tropical climate makes it perfect for gathering the family outdoors to help with lechon, or whole roasted pig.
“Preparing lechon is a bit of an event in itself — from stuffing the hog with onions, lemongrass, and garlic to preparing the fire,” says expat Filiipino and executive chef Carlo Lamagna of Portland’s Clyde Common.
“For the most part, when doing this with family in the Philippines, there are no fancy motorized machines … it’s usually just everyone chipping in with rotating the pig attached to a thick bamboo pole.”
“One of the most authentic Christmas traditions in Costa Rica is to prepare tamales … every family has a secret tamale recipe,” says Allan Duarte, banquet manager at Costa Rica Marriott San Jose.
“Every December tamales are part of our daily meals, and if you visit a Tico house (a typical Costa Rican rural residence), you will always get a tamale as a gift of hospitality.”
Tamales are usually wrapped in banana leaves, and stuffed with a meat (pork, chicken or beef), garlic, onion, potatoes, raisins and other ingredients.
The tamale tradition can be found all over Latin America, each country putting its own particular spin on ingredients and customs.
Surely the most exotic-sounding dish on this list, Russia’s “herring in a fur coat” (or Selyodka pod Shuboy) is a vibrant, layered salad that’s consumed in many Russian households for the holiday season.
“It is a staple at all of my family holiday feasts,” says Daniel Malak, a Russian-American working in San Francisco. “If you’re a pescatarian, open your eyes wide and take in the glory of this pie which is layered with beets, mayo, potatoes, diced hard boiled eggs and, of course, herring.”
Puerto Rico is famous for having one of the world’s most exuberant and long-lasting Christmas holiday cultures (it starts in late November and marches on into early January). Food, of course, plays an integral part in the festivities.
“As a native of Puerto Rico, one of my favorite meals to prepare is arroz con gandules (rice with Pigeon peas),” says Fernando Desa, executive chef of Goya Foods. “Holidays would certainly not be the same without this classic dish.”
The dish, which is seasoned with garlic, oregano, tomato sauce, olive oil and other ingredients, is enjoyed year-round but is required eating at Christmas.
New Orleans is famous for “letting the good times roll” well into the holiday season with its Reveillon dinners, a French family tradition that goes back to the early 19th century.
Originally eaten after midnight mass before Christmas Eve, there are a variety of dishes in any given feast, but the usual suspects are seafood gumbo, soup and game pies.
While the Reveillon dinner is becoming less popular in households, many hotels in the city offer coursed feasts for both travelers and locals to enjoy.
Dumplings, or pierogi — stuffed with either mashed potatoes, cottage cheese or sauerkraut — are the traditional holiday treat of choice in Poland.
“Traditional pierogi are boiled, though nowadays fried dumplings are getting more and more popular,” says Karolina Patryk, native Pole and travel blogger from KarolinaPatryk.com
“They are served with different toppings, such as melted butter, fried onion or skwarki: fried, crunchy golden pork fatback nuggets.”
Meat-eaters might want to take note that their Christmas pierogi won’t be filled with pork or beef anytime soon.
“According to Polish tradition, it’s forbidden to eat meat at Wieczerza Wigilijna (Christmas dinner),” says Patryk.
With many people in Poland observant Catholics, Christmas Day has many of the dietary restrictions surrounding Lent.
The Caribbean island Dominica — not to be confused with the Dominican Republic — prefers to nosh on a hearty bowl of tripe soup for the holidays.
“Tripe soup is something we truly enjoy year round on Dominica, but it is extra special for many over the Christmas holiday because each family has its own special recipe,” says Rosalie Bay’s Resort Manager Daryl Aaron.
“Maybe one likes to add extra provisions — or what we call root vegetables — or another family likes to add more oregano. It is warm and comforting and something special we all share in together.”
Christmas tripe soup reflects the island nation’s “whole animal” eating culture — the practice of eating even those parts of an animal that might normally be discarded — and is part of a cuisine that can lay claim to African, Spanish and British influences.