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What Makes Holiday Food So Special?

A duck roast sat on a table with side dishes



I’m old enough, now, that my holiday memories have that gauzy filter planted firmly over them.  I recount, fondly, stories of Santa riding the local fire truck up and down the streets, siren and lights blaring, a few weeks before Christmas.  I remember the bag of mixed nuts and boxes of cherry cordials and orange sticks that would magically appear under the tree every Christmas Eve.  And then there was the food.

The food that left the house plate by plate to neighbors and friends and the real food that stayed and punctuated our every day. I definitely remember the real food.  While nothing fancy, most of our family’s offerings were traditional and plentiful.  Some seemed locked into our family specifically (raisin pie and my mom’s dill dip for veggies that my sister and I could happily subsist on singly every year) and some shared with the rest of the celebrating public.  But the sum total has me wondering – what is it that makes holiday food so special?


I don’t think it’s the actual food in whatever iteration you subscribe; turkey, ham, seafood, tamales, pies, ciders or a fast food chicken joint if you happen to find yourself in Japan.  The things that are special to my family, including my mother in law’s crab dip that finds its way back into our lives every New Years, wouldn’t win culinary prizes nor would they pass any test for healthy or nutritious fare.  So, alone, the foods are fine.  Good, even.  But all together, in whatever order during whatever set of holidays you celebrate, something magical happens to the fine and the good food, turning it great and legendary.


It would be the simple thing to say of course, it’s the memories that surround the food and I would not argue the point.  It is absolutely the memories.  My husband’s family has a Thanksgiving tradition of green beans (canned, never fresh) covered with a processed cheese.  I remember seeing it the first time and being horrified, and then amused.  Since, it’s become somewhat a joke over the years, but it’s always a must have around the table that last Thursday of November.  I doubt that anyone can say it’s the food and not the memory attached, in this example.  Even my son who has come to this tradition late.  Or, maybe to him, processed cheese is one of those coveted things he gets away with at Grandma’s and it really is the food.


Another example is the non-tradition tradition I share with my sister every year.  Our Thanksgiving meal consists of whatever anyone craves and votes for.  One year we had deli sliced turkey sandwiches and chips followed by pie.  It’s one of my favorite things and the menu is decidedly casual, unexpected and varied from craving to craving.  The must have foods on that day begin and end with chips and veggies and dip.  There is always dessert and drinks, usually turkey, mostly mashed potatoes, but it’s always a roulette of where tastes will land on any given year.  Eyebrows are raised in bemusement and wonder, but the memories are there whether the traditional is or not.


That explored, I’m not sure if it is only the memories that elevate such fare.  There is also something about the physical act of making a holiday dish to be shared that makes the ordinary, special.  I think it’s simply that focus on community, whatever yours looks like or is made up of, that enhances the simple dishes offered in heirloom china as well as paper plates.  Gathering together to break bread is the ultimate symbol of togetherness and warmth, of hearth and home.  I think that is actually why holiday foods throughout the year taste a little sweeter.  When we break down our barriers, create vulnerability and share with our loved ones or strangers alike, we create something out of the ordinary.  Our good will toward man reminds us that community is the key to many things; pushing us out of our comfort zones, transcending religion and politics and knitting us together in understanding.  Through holiday foods we remember that we really are in this world together and needing one another is not only truth, but what sustains us.