Traditional Christmas Dishes? Not So Much!

As we draw near to Christmas and Hannukah, many of us look forward to enjoying lifelong traditions. For me, traditions aren’t so much a clearly delineated set of acts but rather a jumbled collection of activities gathered over continents. 

We all know if you cut down a tree and examine the growth rings in a cross-section of the trunk, you will see a snapshot of the tree’s life. The approximate age, the years it had lots of water, space, and sun, even attacks by bugs or fire.

I sometimes think that if humans had these “tree rings,” mine would  be divided into two distinct sets. Those that grew during my life in South Africa and those that grew in the last 21 years lived in the USA. 

My life-rings (as I have coined them) would also feature colors. I imagine them as being the same colors as those on each of three different flags.

There rings closest to the center would be the Scottish rings. These would be blue and white, representing all the DNA from my ancestors and my parents as well as their culture, history, and traditions. 

Next would be my South African life-rings reflecting all the influences that informed my earliest years and—although they evolved and changed as the country evolved and changed—stayed with me until we emigrated. These rings would also shift colors from the original South African flag of orange, white and blue, to the current flag, black, green, white, red, blue, and yellow.

Lastly, the colors in my current life-rings would be red, white, and blue. These would reflect all the elements of American life that I have internalized.

What would your life-rings look like? Do your colors reflect multiple cultures?

I love the fact that I have this amalgam of influences, but one area that has been disrupted is that of traditions.

Traditions, defined as the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another. 

For many of us, traditions seem to align with food! We hear the word tradition and envisage scenes of multigenerational families faithfully following on with the same acts, cooking the same food, serving it in the same dishes. These families usually have many generations all in one country. They can easily buy the exact same ingredients for dishes as their great-grandmother did. Plates, tablecloths, recipes are handed down through the generations. You could literally make a pie in the exact same dish as your granny made hers. Maybe, right now, you could walk into your kitchen and grab a carving knife handled by your great grandad.

Traditions—this is where it falls apart for me. My parents emigrated to South Africa in their mid-twenties. My mother grew up in a large, loving family. But in her new home, the only family was my father and my big brother. My sister and I, born in SA, grew up without grandparents or any aunts or uncles from her side of the family. 

Over the years, major holidays (Easter, Christmas, Hogmanay—a Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration) evolved into a blend of half-Scottish and half-South African. As my mother made do with what was at hand, some traditions were lost, and some new ones were included. We would have the full Scottish Christmas meal, but it would be eaten on the patio alongside the pool in 80’ temperatures. Sundresses, not snowsuits.

If your family originates from elsewhere, give some thought to your great grandmother and how strange she would have found her new land. Did she manage to cook her traditional dishes?

Then, my husband and I moved to the States, and I was confronted with new holidays: Independence Day, Thanksgiving. I faithfully tried to reproduce the dishes and customs associated with them. My older child had rapidly integrated and wanted to celebrate like “proper” Americans. The problem was, a lot of the more mainstream dishes seemed strange. Our 4th of July and Thanksgiving morphed into our own South African-American celebration.

Traditional Christmas pudding with flaming brandy sauce.

At least we had Christmas! But that too proved tricky. When we first arrived in the US, I couldn’t even find Christmas Crackers with paper hats, let alone mincemeat for the mince pies or the correct custard for the Trifle. It didn’t help that I referred to Santa Claus as Father Christmas!

I cobbled together various ingredients and managed to make a version of the traditional Mince Pies, Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake. Let’s say it tasted nothing like those my mother and I had made! Even my shortbread (made a thousand times) was not right. I learned later that the flour here is not the same as the flour in South Africa.

I was just so determined to carry on with some version of our South African-Scottish tradition that I soldiered on. Sadly, the children didn’t like most of it, and it ended up being thrown away after my husband and I had each had a serving or two.

Yet again, the traditions I had grown up with morphed into a new version. Christmas traditions for our little family of four became a Scottish-South African-American celebration.

I don’t feel our family is alone in enjoying these crazy blended traditions. America is a melting pot that allows us to hang on to some of our old ways while we tiptoe into the new customs. Cultures blend and merge, and—I believe—emerge stronger.

My daughter had a few brief years of standing with her two grandmothers, one Scottish, one English, helping to mix the Christmas pudding or make the Christmas cake, but now we’ve created our traditions. We’ve woven the Scottish and English with the South African and then knitted in some American ways to end up with a wonderfully unique mix. This is our family tradition.

Who knows, maybe our Covid constrained Christmas of 2020 will see many families start their new traditions. 

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2 comments on “Traditional Christmas Dishes? Not So Much!
  1. Clive Pearce says:

    Sounds like SA traditions were a lot like those in Canada, except for the temperatures…

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