Many a joke has been made about the Christmas fruitcake. Johnny Carson famously quoted writer Calvin Trillin's theory that "There is only one fruitcake, and that this fruitcake is simply sent on from year to year." But why do we eat it? Fruitcake dates back to ancient times when creating cakes filled with expensive dried fruits and nuts was a way of showing prosperity. It was often served at special events, which is likely how it became part of the Christmas tradition.
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How is it that a holiday so strongly associated with turkey, stuffing, and pies stems from a feast that likely included none of those items? More likely, the Pilgrims and Indians dined on venison (deer), along with other Native American foods such as corn and oysters. Legend has it that turkeys made their way onto the Thanksgiving table because they were large (and affordable) enough to feed a big crowd at Thanksgiving. Fun fact: Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey -- not the bald eagle -- to be the national bird of the United States, claiming that turkey was "a much more respectable bird."
The food most synonymous with Easter is, of course, eggs! Eggs almost universally symbolize fertility and life. One theory for how the egg became such a popular Easter symbol is that it was actually a response to the old tradition of not eating them during Lent. During this time of abstaining from eating eggs, folks were left to paint them instead. Easter marks the end of Lent and the eggs are then eaten to celebrate the conclusion of the fast.
During Hanukkah, revelers eat potato pancakes, called latkes, that have been cooked in oil. The holiday tradition of eating items made with oil is meant as a reminder of the miracle following the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is said that a small flask of oil kept the flame in the holy temple alight for eight full days.
Eid ul-Fitr is the feast that marks the end of the Ramadan fast. Muslims traditionally eat dates and pastries for breakfast, as it is believed that Muhammad broke his own fasts with a date. Rich rice dishes called biryanis are another traditional item. A biryani symbolizes abundance as it is loaded with meats, sweet dried fruits, and nuts.
Milk-based sweets (mith ai) in various sizes and forms are commonly eaten during this festival of lights celebrated in India and various other countries. Diwali marks the end of the fiscal New Year, when merchants traditionally close out their books for the previous year. More than that, though, it celebrates the defeat of evil and the triumph of goodness and light. Hindus eat sweets and offer them to their friends and family as a way of celebrating any good news -- and Diwali is all about good things!
Chinese New Year
Lucky foods are served throughout the two-week celebration also known as Spring Festival. Celebrants eat long noodles to symbolize long life, and spring rolls, resembling gold bars, to symbolize wealth. Other dishes hold significance because their names in Chinese sound similar to auspicious words. For example, the word for lettuce sounds like "rising fortune," so it is common to see lettuce wraps on the table. Similarly, oranges are often eaten during the holiday as the word for orange sounds like "wealth."
Naw Rooz (Persian New Year)
This holiday celebrates renewal and fertility. A traditional meal is rice with green herbs and fish (sabzi polo mahi). Herbs are used liberally because they symbolize life and renewal. A major part of Naw Rooz is also the haft seen, a traditional table decorated with seven food items whose names start with the Persian letter 'S'. Foods like vinegar, sumac, and apples are included.
According to the biblical story of Exodus, when the Israelites were freed by Pharoah and left Egypt, they did so in such a hurry that there was not enough time for their bread to rise; all they had was the "bread of humility," the unleavened matzo. During the week of Passover, observant Jews eat the cracker-like matzo instead of bread.
As a holiday created to acknowledge African culture in the United States, Kwanzaa draws on foods of both the mother continent and the African Diaspora. One such traditional food is peanut soup or stew. The peanut has a close connection to Africa (an alternate name, goober, is based on a Bantu word) and came to this continent with slaves. Eating the peanut dish celebrates African roots while also commemorating the African American experience.
In Jewish homes across the globe, apples and honey are almost always eaten together on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Participants dip slices of apple into honey as they recite prayers thanking God for "the fruit of the vine" and asking for "a good and sweet new year."
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.