The feasts of Christmas Eve

Discover the Christmas Eve feasts -- and recipes -- from many cultures.

By Elizabeth Baird

Celebrating Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is magical. The celebration of the birth of Christ and the anticipation of family reunions, special presents and favourite foods give this long dark night a radiant glow for many Canadians.

For those of Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox faith, this night has even more significance. For these Canadians whose heritage is Eastern European or Mediterranean, Christmas Eve is celebrated with a blend of devotion, solemnity, ritual and joy. It's an evening of feasting, visiting and carol-singing that culminates in midnight church services. Even beyond its religious importance, it's a celebration of family ties and a reaffirmation of cultural roots.

Customs vary greatly from country to country and, in fact, even among regions and families.

The Poles call their celebration Wigilia; it begins when the first star (symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem) is sighted on Dec. 24. The table is readied: The finest white cloth is placed over a few wisps of hay (representing the manger) and the table is set with the best china and silverware. An extra place is always set for the lonely stranger who might happen by (and who might be Christ), or for relatives who have passed away during the year.

There are usually 12 courses, one for each apostle. A sampling of the dishes could include marinated herring or poached carp in aspic, a lenten soup like beet barszcz (borscht), and pierogi filled with sauerkraut, cabbage or cheese. For dessert, there might be a dried fruit compote, poppy seed cakes, gingerbread and honey cake.

Canadians of Ukrainian ancestry celebrate Christmas Eve on Jan. 6 according to the Julian calendar. Their meal, Svyata Vechera (holy supper), begins with kutya, a dish of pre-Christian origin made with cooked wheat, honey, poppy seeds and walnuts. The repast continues with appetizers like pickled mushrooms and marinated herring.

There's always fish and, of course, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) stuffed with buckwheat or rice with mushrooms. Vegetables might include peas, beets, mushrooms and sauerkraut.

For Italian-Canadians, who often celebrate in large groups with their extended family, no Christmas Eve would be complete without an abundance of squid, octopus and shrimp. As well, there's often fish soup, grilled fish, salt cod, artichokes and torrone, a honey-nut candy.

We celebrate these traditions with a fabulous meatless Christmas Eve buffet based on a selection of delectable fish dishes chosen from the many communities who feast on Christmas Eve. For those who eat meat, we present an easy make-ahead buffet dinner that includes a delectable veal stew, a festive Red and Green Pepper Salad, and rice pilaf embellished with pine nuts, onions and currants.

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