When Jolanta Petrycka remembers her childhood Christmases in Poland, she recalls the scent of a freshly cut tree set up and decorated on December 24th, an extra place setting at the table in case an unexpected friend or stranger shows up, and a large carp swimming in the bathtub. The latter, she explains, would eventually find its way onto the table as part of Wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve feast, but to ensure freshness, the fish had to be kept alive as long as possible.
“My parents, grandmother, brother and I all lived in an apartment so there was no other place to put it,” laughs the 58-year-old Torontonian who, along with her husband and children, immigrated to Canada in 1983.
Like most Canadians, Jolanta’s present-day celebrations include a blend of old and new traditions with strict adherence to some rules, the bending or obliteration of others. She’s maintained the custom of serving 12 meatless dishes – one for each Apostle – and while her husband’s homemade uszka, dumplings, are a must, she sometimes cheats and includes bread as a serving. Regrettably, the Polish tradition of serving dinner only after someone spots the first star got lost, but on the upside, says Petrycha, so too did the carp.
Dawn Johnston, a professor at University of Calgary who teaches a food culture course, says that our desire to follow family traditions stems from the need to connect with our pasts. Smell and taste are powerful memory senses, and so food is a sort of gateway drug.
“Through food we evoke our youth, and recapture happy times.”
But what about folks whose holidays weren’t always ideal?
“Food satisfies a longing for the things we had … or wish we had. We can’t change our families or our history but making traditional dishes gives us a sense of control over the holidays, the feeling that this time we can get it right.”
Interestingly, breaking tradition can be a no-no as Filipino-Canadian, Patricia Candido, 68, of Kingston, Ontario found out.
“I’ve live in Canada for almost 45 years and my children were born and raised here. One year, I decided to replace what has become our customary turkey with the Filipino tradition of lechon, a whole, stuffed and roasted pig. The kids were upset – they said it didn’t ‘taste like Christmas’. “
Thankfully, Candido has always prepared several of her homeland’s favourites to go along with the bird. Lumpia Shanghai, deep-fried spring rolls; quezo de bola, an Edam-like cheese; and leche flan, a dessert similar to crème brulee, take her back to Christmas Eves past when, after midnight mass, she and about 55 members of her extended family would sit down to a massive Noche Buena meal.
Although culinary customs vary greatly around the world, in his travels, the one thing celeb Chef Michael Smith has noted all cultures have in common is the willingness to put a tremendous amount of time and effort into their holiday – any holiday -- fare.
“Food is not just about eating, it’s about the journey not just the destination,” he says. His mother, he points out, spends six months making their traditional plum pudding. “Even I’m not allowed to make it. Yet.”
In Smith’s household, holiday baking is the big thing. “Every weekend, starting at the beginning of December the whole family bakes creating baskets of goodies to give to our family and friends.” It’s his way, he says, of trying to instill in his children that the holidays are about giving and not just getting.
In Ethiopia, perhaps because presents are not part of the holiday tradition, the Christmas Day feast plays an enormous role. Woinshet Bayssie Mekuria, 43, of Enderby BC, remembers lying awake the night before Christmas, (in accordance with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th) with visions of kitfo, raw ground beef marinated in spices; tibbs, cubes of seared beef with butter, onion, garlic and ginger; and doro wat, chicken stew, dancing in her head.
“We fasted for 40 days leading up to Christmas with no meat or dairy so everyone woke up greatly anticipating the meal. My father, around mid-morning, would slaughter a goat, and I was the one to go help him butcher and clean it. As a reward, he’d give me a kidney which I would eat raw and share with my sisters.”
In the ten years since she has been in Canada, Woinshet has combined her husband’s turkey tradition with Ethiopian sides.
Although it may be not be a good idea to change up your own holiday menu on the big day, the entertaining season presents the perfect opportunity to host a tasting party celebrating different cultures’ holiday fare. The idea is to create a communal feast, cocktail-party style, so to add to the table as well as the conversation, ask guests to bring along a hot or cold dish that symbolizes what the holidays taste like to them. Don’t be surprised if Italians show up with a dish from their feast of seven fishes tradition, French folks bring seafood -- or Quebecois, toutiere -- mainstays of Reveillon, a lavish Christmas Eve affair; and those from Latin America share their take on rice and peas.
On your end, go with your own customary dishes or expand your culinary repertoire to reach out of your go-to zone. If you're short on time or expertise, tap into the ethnic resources in your communities and have a dish or two prepared. And by all means, pick up a selection of international cheeses.
Booze-wise, have international wines and beers on hand. To kick off the feast, invite everyone to raise a glass to what truly makes the holidays in Canada merry – the mouth-watering diversity of our collective cuisine.
This article was published in the holiday issue of Zoomer 2015.