Christmas is the time when the best memories resurface and come back to life. A piece of the magic that was experienced in childhood returns and brings with it the same emotions, sensations, smells, and flavours. The Christmas season is over, but those warm memories of Christmas time will stay with us till next year.
The GEAI team would like to share their experience, memories and reflections with you. Europe is a large place, and while the main idea of Christmas is the same – spent time with families – traditions are different. Simona, Célia and Ilya – the current GEAI team – will share some interesting facts about Christmas in Italy, France and Belarus respectively.
An Italian Touch for Christmas with Simona
The first thing that comes to mind, when I think about Christmas, is the tree. A key moment of Italian Christmas is the one of tree decoration and usually takes place on December 8th. In my family, this is a time of fellowship rather than perfectionism. Very often, decorations dating back decades and decades can be found on the Christmas tree of grandparents and uncles.
Another key aspect of Italian Christmas is food, of course. But I don’t think you had any doubts about that. December 24th and 25th are special days in culinary terms. The food that is on the tables on these two days is not like the one of everyday life.
This type of celebration always has a menu that is established by the leaders of the event – the grandmothers. Every Italian knows in their heart that they will never eat as well as at their grandmother’s house and will live every day with the comparison of foods prepared on Christmas day. But it’s worth it, believe me.
The meals start with appetizers, which can be fish or meat-based. Then we move on to the first course. Here the undisputed star is definitely the lasagne. Then comes the second course. In my house, roast with potatoes can never be missing. All are followed by seasonal fruit and nuts. The meals end with dessert. Obviously, I’m talking about the Panettone. The undoubted king of every Christmas. If you have never tried it, next year, you must promise me to taste it. Then you will understand why I talk about it with so much enthusiasm.
After a brief digestive break – which for many can last days – together we play cards or tombola (an Italian game similar to bingo). The beauty of Christmas is right there: getting together and carving out time in the company of our loved ones. It is the time of the year to stop for a second and appreciate what we have.
This is my Christmas. I hope I haven’t exaggerated the food descriptions. Don’t hold me responsible for any snack you didn’t plan to have. I wish everyone, one day, to be able to experience an Italian Christmas. You know, like me, you won’t regret it.
Christmas cooked by our French chef Célia
The French have approached Christmas with a similar manner, but you know how it goes – The Devil is in the Detail!
For me, the celebration starts on the night of December 24th that we call “Le Réveillon de Noël”. First, we drink Champagne and then our delicious French Christmas meal starts… Attention, some images and comments may clash with the sensitivity of some people!
Oysters, escargots, smoked salmon, and foie gras are the most popular starters. Personally, I am not keen on oysters and escargots, but I really enjoyed smoked salmon and foie gras – for this last one I feel guilty but with sweet white wine, it is very good. Then comes the main course: the typical capon with a chestnut, veal and parsley stuffing, served with potatoes, chestnuts, and vegetables. To finish our dinner, we ate the traditional bûche de Noël. It can be an ice or a genoise bûche.
At midnight, it was the moment for us to open our Santa Claus gifts. An enthusiastic moment that gives Christmas Eve its tempo – especially when your Christmas is surrounded by children.
But wait a minute! If you think it was finished about food: not at all!
On January 6th, we celebrate Epiphany commemorating the three kings and eating the famous “galette des Rois”. It is a flat pie made with puff pastry and frangipane. Traditionally, the cake has a “fève”, a tiny charm inside it. The one who got the “fève” is the king and wears the gold paper crown.
To be honest, you must diet after all that food! It is a bit hard because in winter we have some caloric and delicious meals like raclette, fondue, aligot… which don’t help at all but that is another subject..
How they do it in the East
The French and Italian approach may be a little similar, but in the East it’s very different!
In Belarus, the winter holiday season starts at Catholic Christmas and lasts till the Orthodox one – from 25th December to 7th January, but New Year is undoubtedly the king among holidays of this period. Celebrated between the 31th of December and 1th of January, New Year became popular during the 20th century and replaced Christmas as the main holiday in the 1950s. While half of Belarussians are Catholics, and half Orthodox, New Year is a holiday we all can enjoy despite our different backgrounds. I enjoy good company and good food – and the Winter season combines both of those things.
Winter season food is a weird mixture of both traditional Belarussian cuisine and dishes from the Soviet Era. Nothing Winter season food is a weird mixture of both traditional Belarussian cuisine and dishes from the Soviet Era. Nothing represents the latter as much as the “Dressed herring ” stable appetizer on the Christmas table: mixed pickled herring, boiled potatoes, carrots, and onions “coated” in beetroot mayo. To be honest I still prefer classical “Russian salad”! Along with Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Russian Salad is one of the most recognizable symbols of the winter holidays. This easy-to-make salad could be found on every table across the former Soviet Union and no matter what has a special place in the heart of every Belarussian.
Besides these dishes, everything else is up to the family’s tradition. For example, with mine this year it is all about fish – from smoked salmon to roasted prawns in garlic. Belarus is a landlocked country, but this doesn’t mean we can’t cook proper seafood! Fish products are popular, as many orthodox Christians undertake Nativity Fast at this time.
Everyone can drink whatever they want, but when the ten-second countdown for the next year starts – it’s time for sparkling wine! Some write their wishes on a piece of paper – then set it on fire and toss it into the glass. Tradition says this little trick will bring both fortune and luck, and fate will make sure that the wish comes true.
After all these stories, the words of wisdom are simple. No matter your culture, nationality, or religion, Christmas is the time to reflect on the past, prepare plans for the future, and reconnect with people you love.
Stay safe and stay tuned!
Written by: Simona Fondate, Celia Melcus, Ilya LInevich.