The lasting, subjective lure of the winter solstice.
You’ve got the annual cookie swap, the necessary glazed ham and, if you’re feeling fancy, the Ina Garten standing rib roast.
But it helps — should you have a second during this hectic time — to look back a few centuries for the original meaning of Christmas.
Everyone knows that the bringing of a green tree into the house borrows from an older pagan holiday called Yule, which the Europeans observed during the winter solstice as a way of ringing in the new year and the promise of its crops.
In fact, it was actually Saturnalia (the December celebration of Saturn, Roman god of agriculture) that preceded the current tradition of giftgiving and merrymaking around the 25th. Agriculture, then, was the premise on which Christmas would build itself as a holiday for the books.
In this very literal way, Christmas is, first and foremost, about food.
There’s something beautiful about this, the universality of a language and an entire culture that comes from the stomach rather than from the brain.
Christmas today may be elusive, difficult to define. But whether you celebrate it in a church or at home, one thing’s for certain: It’s a time of unbridled festival (from the Latin festum, or “feast”). Food has always been, in other words, a focal point of the holiday season.
To shed light on the festal aspect of Christmas (that is, the food), I’ve asked a handful of chefs to share what they like to eat during the winter solstice.
"For the holidays every year, my mom makes an enormous Indian brunch consisting of a Punjabi dish called poori chole (poori is a fried bread made from soft wheat flour, and chole are chickpeas). There’s a 100% chance my dad, brother and I will fight over the bread, as my mom fries them fresh and can only make one poori every couple of minutes." — Akshay Bhardwaj, Executive Chef at Junoon
"Growing up in Israel, no holiday could beat Hanukkah. Giant jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot) filled with raspberry jam, Nutella or dulce de leche were on every corner. My grandmother served latkes dipped in sugar with applesauce and sour cream. But my mother — the avant-garde that she was — made hers with celery root, parsnips, sweet potatoes, and turnips." — Ben Poremba, Chef and Owner at Elaia
"In Southern Indiana, we were very traditional and small-town German Catholic about Christmas. We’d make all manners of cookies and candies leading up to the day, and if the fall hunting season was productive — and it usually was — the sausage made from deer would be ready. That was my favorite holiday snack." — Paul Fehribach, Chef and Owner at Big Jones
"I go to the grocery store the night before Christmas and stock up on sweets and snacks to get the staff going before service, and we have 'family meal' around 2 o'clock. This usually consists of cookies and pies from our bake shop so everyone working through the holiday can have some of their favorite foods and spend time together before the new year." — Kelly Franz, Executive Chef at Magnolia
"Christmas in Argentina feels like the 4th of July: fireworks all night long, wine, Champagne, great food around a big table. We make a traditional asado with different cuts of meat, like short ribs, sweetbread, chorizo, rib eye, lamb and veal. Topping off the feast with assorted sweets like garapiñada (candy nuts), homemade chocolate bars and duraznos con crema (peaches and cream), there’s much anticipation that night, celebrating on the streets and waiting for Santa." — Ozzy Amelotti, Chef at Vivere