One of our favorite things about traveling is the ability to bring the traditions and flavors of the world back with us. Especially during the holidays, it's fun to enjoy these different traditions at home. There are so many wonderful foods used to celebrate holidays far away that you can bring to your own table. Many countries have their own unique ways of celebrating the holidays, and we thought it would be fun to highlight some of our favorites to give you some new ideas and a few perfect ways to celebrate holidays from around the world at home.
When it’s cold outside, we love to warm up with a toasty beverage. It’s an age-old holiday tradition that countries like Germany, Austria, and the Alsace region of France have honed to perfection with a spicy-sweet hot wine. Gluhwein is a German word meaning “glow wine.” And, while it certainly does bring a glow to those who drink it, the name actually refers to the glowing red hot irons used to heat the wine when Gluhwein originated. Although closely associated with Germanic countries, Gluhwein can be traced back to the Romans, who loved to have a hot spiced wine during European military campaigns.
In its most common form, red wine is sweetened with sugar and spices such as citrus, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves. Variations use white wine or add liqueur or spirits to make it even more potent. Christmas Markets across Europe often serve Gluhwein in a decorative mug. Part of our holiday celebration is to display our many colorful mugs around the house. You can purchase Gluhwein ready for warming or try your hand at a recipe like this one at home.
2. Julekurver Baskets
It gets pretty cold in Scandinavia, so Norwegians and Danes love heartwarming treats during the holidays. Julekurver are small baskets made of paper or felt woven into heart shapes. Children often learn to make them as a fun holiday craft tradition. The Julekurver baskets can be hung all around the home as a way to provide festive decor that brings a smile and a reminder of love and kindness. Even better, folks will often fill these tiny baskets with nuts or candy throughout the holiday season, making them a steady supply of tasty little treats.
A traditional Scandanavian Christmas tree can be decorated with Julekurver. Many attribute the creation of the baskets to writer Hans Christian Andersen, who made them in his native Denmark back in the 1860s. Check out some ideas on Pinterest to make Julekurver baskets part of your home holiday tradition. For extra fun, read some of Andersen’s Christmas stories free from Project Gutenberg.
3. Rosca De Reyes
This sweet bread is a favorite in Latin countries including Mexico and Argentina as well as Spain and even the United States, particularly Puerto Rico. The Rosca de Reyes (“ring of the kings”) is traditionally eaten at the end of the Christmas season on January 6, also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, or the Day of the Three Wise Men. Its oval shape is meant to resemble a crown and decorations of candied dried fruit represent the jewels that would adorn a crown.
Traditionally a small trinket is baked into the cake. In some cases, this is a bean or gold piece, in others, a small figurine of the infant Jesus. The hidden item symbolizes the Holy Family’s flight from the Massacre of the Innocents in the New Testament. Whoever finds the trinket receives blessings and good luck. The fortunate finders are then tasked with hosting a celebratory meal for their friends and neighbors, including traditional foods such as tamales, pozole, and atole, on February 2, the official end of Christmas known as Candlemas. Some bakers hide several items in one cake to spread around the benefits and burdens. Here’s a recipe to make your own Rosca De Reyes.
4. Christmas Boats
Greek culture is closely tied to the sea. So it’s not surprising to find that a cherished Greek holiday tradition involves a celebration of the boats and ships that have such importance to Greek people. Karavakis, or little ships, are decorated as a cherished symbol of the holiday season. The boats embody a variety of positive thoughts, such as sailing toward a new life after the birth of Jesus, and celebrating the return of seafaring family members after long periods away at sea. For this reason, Christmas boats in family homes are often placed near doors or fireplaces and facing inward to represent a successful journey home.
Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, provides another link between Greece’s maritime history and this holiday custom. In the old days, mariners would decorate their ships with lights and ornaments. In present times, many towns and islands display decorated boats covered in sparkling lights in the main square. Greek families now place smaller boats around the house and use them as centerpieces filled with lights, ornaments, coins, and more.
In Israel, Sephardic Jews with Spanish, Middle Eastern, and African heritage enjoy sufganiyot during the 8-day celebration of Hanukkah in December. These jam- or custard-filled donuts topped in powdered sugar date back to the 12th-century custom of eating fried dough or fritters during Hanukkah.
Sufganiyot can be compared to a cross between a pillowy-soft French beignet and a jelly-filled German Berliner. Many of the heritage lands from which the Sephardic Jews originated have their own sweet fried doughs such as sfenj in Morocco and bunuelos in Spain. The sufganiyot name reflects a combination of the Talmudic words sofgan and sfogga, meaning a spongy dough. Traditional fillings were strawberry jelly and sometimes custard, but today, similar to the kindred Polish doughnuts called paczki, sufganiyot now have fillings that range from classic to creative. Celebrate at home by learning more about the history of sufganiyot and trying out a recipe.
We absolutely love German Christmas Markets, so it’s no surprise that when we’re at home, we love to explore the Christkindlmarket in Chicago, one of the most authentic traditional holiday markets outside of Europe. As this year’s shopping experiences have changed to protect everyone’s health and safety, the Christkindlmarket will be virtual. Called Home for the Holidays, the virtual market offers the chance to enjoy the experience from the comfort of your own home. Visitors can explore vendor products from around the world through an online marketplace and participate in fun events like Christkind Story Time to learn about German culture and traditions.
For those who enjoy purchasing unique gifts with a dash of international flair, visitors can pre-order limited Christkindlmarket boxes as well as exclusive merchandise sets right from the Christkindlmarket online shop. We look forward to taking a virtual stroll ourselves, and you can bet we’ll have a mug of Gluhwein on hand.
7. Decorate The Tree
So many cultures celebrate holidays with decorations; it’s the perfect time to inject a little global culture into your own home and tree. Celebrate the joy of the world by filling your tree with travel-related ornaments. We love to pick up ornaments wherever we go, and this year it’s going to remind us of all those great places we have visited in the past. Hide a German pickle ornament deep inside the boughs. Whoever finds the pickle on Christmas Eve can get an extra gift. Though the pickle-hiding may have been a stunt to sell more German ornaments, we do it for fun anyway.
Many countries have unique holiday decor, especially for their Christmas trees. In the Ukraine, legend has it that penniless children saw spider webs on the tree magically transformed into silver and gold on Christmas morning. Now it’s customary for Ukrainians to adorn their Christmas trees with sparkling decorations of spiders and webs. The French often decorate their trees with red-apple ornaments associated with the Garden of Eden. In the Netherlands, Christmas wreath-shaped biscuits known as kerstkransjes adorn the trees. And, because Australia is warm during the winter months, seashell decorations are favorite ornaments.
We love to put several of these and other traditions together to create our very own global holiday celebrations. Or, if you want to simplify, celebrate as they do in Japan with a KFC feast on Christmas Day. Yes, it’s true. Since 1974 when KFC first offered a Christmas meal to holidaying visitors in Japan, the Japanese adopted the KFC Christmas dinner as a tradition of their own. It really never has been easier to celebrate holidays from around the world at home.
For more holiday travel inspiration, here are some of our other recommendations: