Blending Family Holiday Traditions Through a Shared Love of Food
December is a time for gathering and celebrating with family and friends. Depending on your religion, culture, and even geographical location, this celebration can look different across many households. And in today's world, with a blending and melding of families, this can end up in a delightful mish-mash of winter traditions. Nothing can be truer than with my clan: We've taken bits and pieces from all of our heritages to form our own unique celebration. Yet, even with all of our differences, we have one thing that unites us through it all…food!
Pictured: Honey-Glazed Ham
For me, the winter holidays were always a bit underwhelming. I grew up in a Jewish family so we never had any of the traditional Christmas food festivities I found so compelling in the families of my Gentile friends. No family bake-off of Christmas cookies or gingerbread men, no yule log cakes, and definitely no Christmas dinner with a spiral cut honey glazed ham.
In contrast, my mom would whip up a batch of overly-greasy and slightly undercooked latkes for Hanukkah, whenever that happened to fall in December, and that was that. For a family and a culture whose holidays are fairly food-focused with special dishes or specific rituals revolving around meals (I'm looking at you Passover Seder and Yom Kippur breaking-the-fast), December's sad latkes always felt a bit like a bust.
Then everything changed when I started my own family.
My husband and I met for our first date at a local coffee shop, where I nearly ran him over in the parking lot, and it was pretty much love at first sight (or car accident?) after that. Of course, we had a lot in common: we both loved being outdoors, had zany senses of humor, and obviously, enjoyed each other's company. But the thing that really brought us together? Food.
You see, my husband is Vietnamese. His family escaped Vietnam at the start of the war, and the only things that they were able to bring with them from their homeland were the clothes on their backs, a few books, and their recipes. The Jewish people have had a similar diaspora over the years (in fact, many of our food-centered holidays focus on that). Though so many things about our two cultures are different, we discovered that Vietnamese and Jewish people are more similar than not. And, one of those things that bring us together is food.
So, many years ago, during our first winter holiday together, we had a big decision to make. Not just for the two of us, but our blended family. My husband came with two young boys, who had celebrated Christmas with their mom — a holiday I never experienced first-hand. So, how do we celebrate the holidays, blending our cultures, families, and traditions, while also honoring our different heritages? And, there was our answer: Since we are blended in so many ways, let's blend our holidays, too.
This means including foods that represent all of us against a background of a Hannukah Menorah, winter solstice decorations, a Buddhist shrine to our relatives, and a Christmas tree for good measure.
Pictured: Jewish-style Sweet and Sour Brisket
When both of our families gather together, we are 30 to 40 people strong. Kids, parents, grand-parents, and in-laws all gather around the (super-ginormous) table, usually a ping-tong table covered with a tablecloth to hold all of the food or a few folding card tables sidled up to the dining-room table, Charlie Brown-style. We serve up latkes, though this version is a bit better than what my mom used to make (sorry, mom!). No matter when Hanukkah falls, we also bring along brisket and kugel .
Pictured: Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls
We also make traditional Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls, fresh rolls, and pho. My sister-in-law usually roasts a turkey or two (because, why not?!), stuffed with herbs and pickled quail eggs (a recipe passed down from her mother), and lately, that honey glazed ham has made an appearance at the table (don't tell my Bubbe).
Pictured: Aunt Teen's Creamy Chocolate Fudge
Along with Christmas cookies (store-bought or homemade, depending on who's bringing them), fudge, and eggnog also make an appearance. It's basically the best international buffet you have ever been to.
Pictured: Chicken Makhani (Indian Butter Chicken)
Melding things even further, our best friends have been joining us for Christmas dinner the last few years. And, not to be outdone, they bring their culture and food along with them. My best friend is Sikh Indian and her daughters are half Chinese. Her fiancé, an all-American ex-Marine, wouldn't even think of a holiday without a roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. So, along with our Jewish and Vietnamese foods, and a smattering of "traditional" Christmas dishes, channa masala , butter chicken, and samosas have now joined the spread. On occasion, we've been known to bring along Chinese food, as well. To say that we all leave with leftover goodie bags and food comas would be an understatement.
Pictured: Mom's Potato Latkes
Of course, this year will look a little different with small family gatherings instead of our global feast of family and friends numbering nearly 50+. But I'm still planning on celebrating with food, in the new best way I've learned how. My sister-in-law will probably drop off some homemade chicken or seafood curry, I'll whip up a batch of latkes, and we might get a bit of take-out from our favorite local Indian restaurant. We'll gather around the table (and the laptop for a Zoom call), dig in, and blend.
Related: Find food inspiration from around the world in our Global Kitchen