When many Americans imagine a holiday table, it is often overflowing with gravy, baked ham and marshmallow-crusted sweet potato casserole. Butter and carbs are a universal love language, so it makes sense that each culture around the globe has its own spin on holiday feasts.
Harrisonburg is a melting pot of various cultures with their own customs and recipes for the end-of-year dinner table.
In China, Christmas is not celebrated as a major public holiday, but the end of December with the promise of the new year is still a cause for much excitement and an excuse to be a little extra gluttonous.
Lijuan Chen, who goes by Sandy, owns the Oriental Cafe in Harrisonburg. Chen said the dominant holiday in China during this time of year is the Chinese New Year that falls sometime between January and February. While the American traditions of New Year’s are often focused on activities rather than grub, China honors the holiday similarly to Christmas with gift-giving and a large meal with cake and dumplings.
“It’s very much like your Christmastime when all your family members come together. We will have the whole feast, which represents the abundance of the coming year. We usually have the Chinese cake, which also has some good indication of getting higher and higher in the next year,” Chen said.
Nian gao is a sticky rice cake traditionally eaten in hopes of bringing good fortune in the next year. Moist and jiggly from the mochiko flour and high dairy content, nian gao is sweetened with almonds, coconut and finished with sesame seeds for additional texture. Another tradition is eating boiled pork and cabbage dumplings right before midnight, which represents longevity and wealth.
Many Latin American countries have a larger Christian population, so they share cultural similarities to the United States in how they celebrate Christmas.
Jose Santos Gonzalez is the owner of Pupuseria El Milagro Restaurant and Tienda Latina. Santos Gonzalez, who migrated to the U.S. in 2006 from El Salvador, said hardy chicken dishes are staples of the Christmas season.
“The traditions that we have in the month of December and Christmas and New Year are the chicken tamales, sopa de gallina india and chicken sandwiches,” Santos Gonzalez said.
Sopa de gallina india is a brothy soup made with free-range, home-raised chicken mixed with various vegetables like carrots, onions, tomatoes and potatoes seasoned with parsley, red pepper and basil. Tamales are corn husk pockets of steamy dough, and El Salvadoran chicken sandwiches are loaded with cabbage, radishes, carrots, tomatoes and chicken dressed in Worcestershire sauce and mustard on small loaves of French bread.
While any of these dishes can be eaten in any season and Santos Gonzalez’s mother-in-law prepares tamales year-round to sell in the restaurant, a table full of tamales is a trademark of Christmas festivities.
Santos Gonzalez said the feast does not stop with roasted hen and chicken sandwiches. The signature dessert for December in El Salvador is classic sweet bread.
“If someone is baking and makes bread, the different kinds of bread include sweet bread and regular bread. It’s almost always sweet like you would get from a bakery. The majority work with brown sugar,” Santos Gonzalez said.
Speaking of desserts, Christmas in Eastern Europe is defined by the sweet medley of seeds and grain called kutia.
Walter Marchuk is a Ukrainian-born Harrisonburg resident who became a citizen in 2000 after being sponsored by Park View Mennonite Church. Along with door-to-door caroling, Marchuk said the nutty pudding is a trademark sign the holiday season has arrived.
“It’s just a specialty, one time of the year during the Christmastime,” Marchuk said.
Kutia is traditionally a blend of wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, nuts and sometimes raisins served over either milk or water.
Marchuk said Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians celebrate the season from Christmas to New Year’s as one massive holiday, due in part to secular communist propaganda.
“They take like a week or more, usually people take a day off... so they are celebrated together,” Marchuk said. “The reason is because there was communists, so when people celebrated Christmas, they tried to shift it and pointed to the New Year.”
Whether Christmas is the reason for the season or New Year’s brings the family together, each culture has a different spin on winter festivities, but many countries agree it is a special time of year.