This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 12, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Gluttony was a rather unpleasant character in Medieval Morality Plays, and I’m afraid he becomes our split personality persona during Christmas dinner. All year long we follow our Weight-Watcher’s Diet, but the allurement of a sumptuous Christmas dinner causes us to abandon our diet at least for the Day.
One day of gluttony can’t really hurt us, can it, and actually might be good for the mind and soul (forget the body for one day), especially when you consider all the mouth-watering Christmas cuisines the world has to offer.
The typical American Christmas dinner, with regional variations, consists of turkey with stuffing (dressing or filling), mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and green vegetables. In Texas, it might be deep-fried turkey, smoked turkey, or barbecued brisket, but served with dressing. Upon googling “dressing,” I found that, while technically the only difference between “dressing” and “stuffing” is “baked separate in a pan” or “stuffed inside the bird,” this Christmas delight is called “dressing” (no matter what) in the South and “stuffing” in the Northeast and in the rest of the country (no matter what). Except for the Pennsylvania Dutch, who call it “filling.”
In spite of our regional and ethnic differences, it is still safe to say that turkey-and- dressing is the essence of the typical American Christmas dinner. It’s interesting to note that the Christmas dinner menu often served to the British Royal family at Sandringham (where Queen Elizabeth and her family spend every Christmas) is also turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed or roasted potatoes.
However, if you take a trip across the Texas border to Mexico, you will find something quite different, though also delectable and sumptuous, on the Christmas Day dinner table: pavo navideno, ensalada de Nocha Buena, menudo, tamales, volteado de pina, ponche navideno, Russian potato salad, bacalso with romeritos and atole. Those of us who love Mexican cuisine could be lured into gluttony by such eats!
While most Texans are familiar with Mexican cuisine, what may be surprising to many of us is the fact most European countries do not serve turkey and dressing at Christmas. In Germany, it’s roasted goose; in Italy, fried eel; in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, fried carp; in Russia, roasted pig or stuffed pig’s head; in Iceland, roasted reindeer; in France, foie gras, chapon, or Buche de Noel; and in Denmark, it’s pork roast or roast duck. The Coptic Christians in Ethiopia serve wat, a meat and vegetable stew, on flatbread at Christmas. Since Christmas comes in mid-summer in Australia, salads, cold meats, and seafood are often served on Christmas Day, though many Australians still observe the food traditions of England, such as that served by the Queen at Sandringham.
During my childhood, my family always ate Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house, with my Wendish grandmother, the main chef. We usually had baked hen with dressing, noodles served with chicken giblets, creamed herring, and homemade koch kase (cooked cheese), just to mention the main courses (well, koch kase was actually a “nach Tisch”). No doubt the Christmas food items that contributed the most to my gluttony were the cakes, cookies and other desserts. My brother and I especially enjoyed the gingerbread men which Grandma seemed to enjoy making. Instead of the traditional American fruitcake, my grandmother made a date and spice cake. We did not have Stollen, which is considered a fruitcake and loved by Germans, and is more like a cinnamon roll/coffee cake than a cake, because Grandma was Wendish, not German. She did make “baby coffee cakes,” which were very similar to kolaches, but we never used the word, “kolache.” And she always made pecan pie and minced meat pie. My gastro system still yearns for such delectables, except I prefer American fruit cake to date/spice cake. And my mouth waters at the mere thought of creamed herring!
Christmas is definitely not about eating sumptuous food, but maybe a little gluttony once a year won’t hurt us.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.