Japanese American Traditions

Taste of Holiday Traditions

Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Joyeux Noel! Felices Navidades! While the greetings of the holiday season may differ from culture to culture, food seems to be a common way of bringing families and friends together for celebrations.

All over the world, holiday feasts are brimming with sweet delicacies—plum pudding in England, the buche de Noel (a cake roll filled with chestnut cream) in France, the stollen (a rich fruit cake) in Germany, the turron (a nougat-like sweet of honey and almonds) in Spain, and the pannetone in Italy. In the United States, turkey, stuffing, fruitcake, and eggnog are all holiday staples.

The Jewish people celebrate the Eight Day Jewish Festival of Light with a number of traditional dishes. According to Jewish belief, Chanukah is a memorial to the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom almost 2,300 years ago. The lighting of the eighth candle of the menorah symbolizes the miracle of the one day’s supply of holy oil that lasted the entire eight days needed to purify more for the lighting of the Perpetual Light. Because Chanukah commemorates this miracle, it is traditional to serve foods cooked in oil, such as potato latkes (pancakes) and Krapfen (doughnuts).

Kwaanza, an expression of unity and togetherness, celebrates the guiding principles of the African culture. Each night of the seven-day celebration highlights one of the principles that guide African Americans throughout the year. These principles include Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). On the sixth night, the day of Kuumba, a huge feast called the Karamu, is celebrated with family and friends. The foods served at this feast—black-eyed peas, okra, greens, sweet potatoes—connect African Americans to their heritage.

Japan has celebrated Christmas since the 1930s, due in part to the influence of World War II. To the Japanese, Christmas is more of a prelude to Oshogatsu, the New Year’s celebration that is probably the most eagerly awaited festival of Japan’s calendar year. One source, The Gourmet Guide, reports that children await Uncle Chimney on Christmas Eve, and interestingly enough, because the Japanese see a similarity between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus, parents often buy a bucket of chicken from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to feast on. Dessert is often strawberry shortcake. How’s that for an unusual twist on Christmas traditions!

Yes, there’s no denying that food is the centerpiece on many holiday tables, so no matter what celebration you embrace as your own, loosen your belt buckle, and enjoy the tastes of the holidays. Calorie-counting will need to wait until it’s time once again to make our New Year’s resolutions.

November 2003

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