Celebrating Midwinter: Holiday Foods in the United States

Now in the height of winter, many of us are spending more time in the kitchen, preparing the foods of the season. But why these particular foods, at this particular time?

To explore these questions, I took a look at the Food Timeline, a quirky, beloved, and detailed food history resource started by librarian Lynne Olver in 1999. After Olver’s death in 2015, the site sat dormant until Virginia Tech began managing it in 2021. Turns out The Food Timeline is strong on Christmas and Yule traditions, but could use more entries about other celebrations. So I’ve gathered a range of foodways common in my part of the world during December and January. (Look for recipes and more information at the links.)

“2011-12-24_Christmas-Cookies” by Tavallai is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In the Northern Hemisphere, special midwinter foodways often share a focus on light. Scored rounds of Scottish shortbread evolved from sun-shaped cakes baked for solstice celebrations; sugar cookies are cut to resemble the Star of Bethlehem. And it’s no accident that light-centered celebrations include foods fried in oil. Shredded potato latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are Hanukkah standards; Sephardic Jews and others influenced by the traditions of Spanish Moriscos also eat sweet yeasted balls of fried dough called buñuelos.

In Mexican tradition, buñuelos are crispy discs sometimes spiced with anise or orange and served with sugar or syrups; they are eaten after reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter during processional celebrations called Las Posadas, lit up by candles and sparklers.

“Latkes (Potato Pancakes)” by lynn.gardner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the short, cold days of winter, warmth matters, too. The West Indian curries and African stews often eaten during Kwanzaa, for example, combine soothing temperatures with spices that bring a different kind of heat. Other midwinter celebratory foods incorporate the warmth of alcohol.

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is also a time of limited food resources, so holiday foods are built on non-perishable seasonal foods like dried fruits, squashes, or root vegetables. Food that can be made ahead—fruitcakes drenched in liquor, cookies whose shelf life is prolonged by ginger—save precious time.

“Prepping for Stew” by QuintanaRoo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Even as they maximize scarce resources, midwinter holiday foods in the United States also emphasize luxury. Everyday breads get replaced by enriched versions heavy on oil or butter, eggs, and sugar or honey: think Lussekater (St. Lucia cats), Stollen, panettone. Because fat is a preservative, enriched bread stays fresh longer than regular loaves. One 1874 recipe for a brioche pastry called Twelfth Night or King Cake noted that it tasted best after four months—so Christian celebrants could bake it in the early winter and eat it on Epiphany (January 6, Three Kings Day) or make it last until Lent. Like steamed Christmas puddings, Twelfth Cakes are baked with inedible charms inside (dried beans, coins, figurines, etc.), illustrating how holiday foods can be linked to play and good fortune.

“St Lucia buns” by Akane86 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eggs and sugar (alongside liquor and spices) find their way into hot drinks, too, including boiled custard, egg nog, and the Tom and Jerry, a creamy cocktail first documented in nineteenth-century England.

Other hot holiday drinks are almost meals in themselves: wassail, which in the United States is often citrusy spiced cider or wine, has historically been more robust, incorporating (rice) custard, trifle, or blanched almonds, with roasted apples or slices of toast floating on top.

Another creamy sweet hot drink is atole (before colonization, atolli), a common accompaniment to buñuelos and tamales during Las Posadas. Atole is traditionally thickened with masa harina and flavored with sweet corn, but cinnamon, anise, almond, and citrus are popular contemporary additions. Champurrado–i.e., chocolate atole–is a favorite variation.

“Champurrado Tamales” by Jeremy Brooks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Many foods associated with Christmas and Yule traditions in the United States have Medieval roots and owe a great debt to cultures based in the Mediterranean, the Arabian peninsula, and southern Asia. Europeans who set out to conquer Jerusalem brought back with them a taste for almonds, oranges and lemons, raisins, currants, prunes, figs, and dates, as well as spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cardamom, and saffron. By the thirteenth century these foods and spices were being imported to Europe.

Warfare and trade introduced sugar to Europe as well (the rose water and almond confection known as Marzipan hails originally from Persia), along with knowledge of how Persian and Arab physicians used sugar medicinally. In Medieval Britain, twisted sticks of sugar flavored with essential oils were employed to fend off winter colds, a strategy that persists in today’s coughdrops, horehound and wintergreen sticks, and peppermint candy canes.

“Stick Candy.” by ohdearbarb is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Holidays (from Old English haligdæg, holy day) are times for celebration and thoughtful reflection, but also for demonstrating generosity (and wealth) and petitioning for prosperity. Delicious, extra-ordinary food helps get it all done.