How to Tempt the Scrooges, or, Christmas, the Cooking Season

A German ornament depicting a baker. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
A German Christmas ornament depicting a baker. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I love Christmas. Yes, I really do.

For I see Christmas as a time that allows us – in these rather sterile, rigid United States, anyway – to cut loose and string up gaudy gee-gaws all over the house. To transcend the daily. To feel the seasonal and mythic cycles of past times. To celebrate the sheer miracle of being alive.

That, to me, is what festivals mean, be they football games or saints’ days or other special days. All cultures reap the benefits of stepping out of time, as it were, on festive days. It’s a universal characteristic.

But Christmas, as pundits like Oprah say, can be a very difficult time for some people. I know. Some people grumble about how much they hate Christmas and how dare anybody expect them to join in the festivities if they don’t want to.

I get that.

I mean, after all, if you always end up with sitting at a food-laden table with squabbling relatives or if you can’t afford to buy gifts for everyone (or just plain don’t want to) or if you find Christianity a bit of a painful subject from the religious point of view, you probably don’t welcome the twelve days of Christmas.

You might even dread the five pounds you’re likely to pack on while indulging in the culinary delights of the season.

And no matter how you feel about Christmas, you probably hate the commercialization of a feast day that celebrates simplicity too.

But, you know, there’s another way of looking at Christmas. Even if you’re not an avowed Christian. Even if you secretly suspect your family harbors the original Dickensian Scrooge, the guy Charles Dickens thought of as he wrote “A Christmas Carol.”

Christmas offers one of the most startling examples of culinary creativity ever conceived of, aside from the delicacies generated by Islamic cooks for breaking the Ramadan fast.

Because many of the traditional Christian denominations celebrate Christmas starting with Advent at the beginning of December and end it with Epiphany on January 6, there’s a whole month traditionally devoted to the preparation and serving of food that generally doesn’t appear any other time of the year.*

With the abundance you see in even the most standard American grocery store, it’s possible to reproduce many of the stellar dishes associated with Christmas from cultures all over the world:

Bûche de Noël (France)

Christmas cake (England, Australia)

Bacalau (Brazil, Portugal)

Tourtière (Canada)

Eggnog (Latin America, USA)

Fish soup (vánoční rybí polévka) (Czech Republic)

Red cabbage (Denmark)

Lutefisk (Norway)

Panettone (Italy)

Stollen (German)

Tamales (Mexico)

Pierogi (Poland)

Polvorones (Spain)

Turkey (United States)

And the wonderful thing about cooking all those dishes is that you cannot possibly eat them all by yourself. You need to invite people to eat with you at your table. You could package up some of these riches in containers and share them with people who can’t cook anything more than a can of soup or people who can’t cook because of illness or other disasters.

In other words, Christmas is indeed a time to celebrate the miracle of life, no matter what your religious beliefs might be.

Just to get started, here’s a list of the cookbooks I haul out every year before I start cooking for Christmas – the list includes many older titles, but that’s because those books speak of the traditional for me:

Christmas in Williamsburg (Joanne B. Young, 1970)

An Olde Concord Christmas (1980)

Cookies and Candies for Christmas (Michelle Urvater, 1982)

Gifts from the Christmas Kitchen (Irena Chalmers Cookbooks, 1983)

Cooking for Giving (Bert Greene & Phillip Schulz, 1984)

Cookies for Christmas (Better Homes & Gardens, 1985)

The Great Scandinavian Baking Book (Beatrice Ojakangas, 1988)

Rose’s Christmas Cookies (Rose Levy Beranbaum, 1990)

The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas (Jeff Smith, 1991)

Visions of Sugarplums (Mimi Sheraton, 1996)

The Christmas Eve Cookbook (Ferdie Pacheco, 1998)

*Granted, women did (and do) most of the work associated with Christmas cooking, but aside from the obvious drudgery of pushing potatoes by hand through a sieve, the very fact that all these dishes exist testifies to the amazing creativity of women in the kitchen.

One of my favorite Christmas cookies (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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