December 14, 2022
Christmas is a unifying festivity for many countries around the world who celebrate it. However, different cultures will have traditions which distinguish them from others. These can be found in their Christmas food, drink, practices, and activities which are also deeply rooted in their individual identities. In the Mediterranean, where the wine is world-renowned, the food is exquisite, and the sense of community looms large, Christmas is a spectacular occasion which provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate these values with enhanced enthusiasm. Here is how some Mediterranean countries celebrate Christmas in their own unique ways.
The elegance of a French Christmas is almost unmatched. From early December, dazzling Christmas markets can be found up and down the country selling festive toys, treats and trinkets. Homes are decorated with lush Christmas trees, intricate wreaths and real yule logs made of cherry wood. Sometimes red wine is poured over the logs to intoxicate the air with festive cheer. As with most Mediterranean countries which celebrate Christmas, the main festive day is Christmas Eve where children open presents from Père Noël and families gather for a special dinner called the Réveillon. Served after presents and before Midnight Mass, decadent dishes include foie gras, escargot, turkey, goose, oysters, caviar, smoked salmon, a cheese platter (of course) and 13 desserts. Those desserts represent Jesus and his 12 Apostles.
In Spain, Christmas begins on 22nd December with the El Gordo lottery. This is a huge tradition where Spaniards will spend up to €200 per ticket in the hope of winning the grand prize. Beyond this, it is a moment of togetherness. Friends and families will watch the results of the lottery unfold and consider future plans with or without the cash. Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena and is Spain’s main festive occasion in the holiday period. Children will open their gifts and many will go to Midnight Mass (Misa del Gallo) to celebrate the birth of Jesus with carol-singing and symphonies of guitars, drums and tambourines. Beforehand, traditional tapas dishes are commonly served followed by a hearty soup and then fish or meat depending on the region. Desserts (including torron, marzipan, polvorónes and mantecados) usually fill the entire dining table to finish the meal in sweetness. Although Nochebuena is an important feasting day, families will unite once more on 25th December for more festive food and wine!
Christmas traditions in Italy stretch well beyond the usual 3-day period, with their first celebration on 8th December (the Immaculate conception) and their last on 6th January (La Befana). For a country which lays great importance on togetherness around the table, it is perhaps unsurprising that Italians prioritises food and wine above all else in their festivities. Family and friends will congregate, all contributing in some way to their bountiful feasts. Christmas Eve is known as La Vigilia. Traditionally, meat isn’t eaten on this day meaning seafood is given the spotlight. These will differ from region to region on the basis of local produce, but typical dishes include spaghetti alle vongole, marinated anchovies, seafood risotto, salted cod and calamari. There is not much time to digest as the following day’s lunch is another banquet. Pasta dishes can always be found on the table followed by the long-awaited meat, usually veal, chicken, sausages or beef. The 26th sees another meal usually spent with extended family or close friends. All of these savoury treats are naturally complimented with delicious wines and sweet delights such as panettone, torrone, tiramisu, and roasted chestnuts.
Unlike the last 3 countries, Greece’s main day of celebration is the 25th December. Since a large part of Greek identity is the beautiful sea which surrounds the mainland and its many islands, the Karavaki boat decoration is an important part of Grecian Christmas. The Karavaki is a Christmas boat usually adorned with festive decorations and lights and found in most main squares around the country. Indeed, Christmas trees only became more commonly used in the last decades in Greece because the Karavaki took precedence! In terms of gift-giving, rather than Santa Claus delivering presents on the 24th and 25th, Saint Basil (known as Agios Vasilis) visits on New Years Eve. The Saint Basil cake is baked on 31st December and a coin is then inserted into the base. Whoever finds the coin in their slice of cake is said to receive luck for the new year ahead! In terms of festive feasting, Greek Christmas food comprises of pork which is the first morsel of meat eaten to break advent. Mulled wine or honey raki are the drinks commonly found in glasses, and in terms of desserts there are melomakarona, baklava, rizogallo, kourabiedes, and kataifi. Finally, most tables are crowned with a Chrisopsomo (Christ’s bread) which is a sweet loaf decorated with a cross.
The Christmas festivities kick off on 24th December with families getting together to drink good port wine, eat good food, and enjoy good company. Traditionally, children will leave out their shoes for Baby Jesus to fill with presents whilst families have left the house to go to Midnight Mass. Upon their return, they will open up the gifts. Nativity scenes (Presépios) are usually found dotted around cities and towns but also in most homes. The figure of Baby Jesus will only be added to scene after midnight to represent his birth on 25th December. In terms of Christmas Eve dinners, Portuguese dishes will feature seafood as opposed to meat: Bacalhau (cod), octopus and calamari are mostly served whilst on Christmas Day, lamb, goat or turkey are the main events.
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Words and Photographs by Antonia Fest