Holiday Food Traditions – History, Meaning, and Nutrition

The month of December is full of holidays with rich traditions. These holidays are generally joyous occasions when people find themselves reconnected with seldom-seen family and friends for the purpose of celebration. Food and drink are a central part of just about any gathering and, however your family chooses to celebrate, chances are there’s a feast involved. Celebrating in this way boosts the spirit and brings warmth, light, and a sense of community to our meals.

Each holiday brings with it food traditions that carry special meanings. Some tell historical or religious stories while others represent ethical values or good fortune. Learning the meaning and history behind a dish can be just as enjoyable as eating it. Knowing the health benefits of these foods, or even switching up the recipes in ways that better support our bodies, can help us feel good about celebrating and eating all the amazing nibbles, entrees, and even desserts.


Christmas, held on the 25th of December, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God in the Christian religion and the very foundation on which the religion stands. It’s difficult not to be familiar with this holiday, as every year Christmas decorations and music dominate the American landscape.

In my own childhood, by far the most fascinating spectacle each year was the English food tradition of Plum Pudding. Each year, my aunt Doris would present the Plum Pudding after Christmas dinner alight with flaming brandy. The dark-colored dessert, which is also known as Christmas Pudding, is made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles – a mix of dark sugars, sweet spices like cinnamon and allspice, dark candied fruits such as prunes and cranberries, citrus fruits, and nuts. This pudding is steamed, allowed to develop its flavors for a day or more, then steamed again and served warm.

Although there are no actual fresh plums used in Plum Pudding, a main ingredient is usually the plum’s dried incarnation: the prune. Prunes are full of fiber, copper, iron, and are high in bioflavonoids, which function as antioxidants and are anti-inflamatory. Prunes help to prevent constipation, boost memory, lower cholesterol, and prevent heart disease. Other ingredients in Plum Pudding include citrus fruits, which are high in vitamin C and electrolytes, and cinnamon and nuts, which are both high in immune-enhancing zinc. For a healthier Plum Pudding, use dried fruit instead of candied fruit and substitute coconut oil or other healthful oil in place of traditional animal fats for more health-supportive omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.


Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights. Because the Hebrew calendar differs from the commonly used Gregorian calendar, the precise date in which the festival begins fluctuates from year to year. In 166 BCE, the Jewish Maccabees won victory over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem who had outlawed the practice of Judaism and made it mandatory to worship Greek gods. Hanukkah celebrates the rebuilding and rededication of the Jewish temple after this victory. After their triumph, the Maccabees could only find one jug of lamp oil, which they expected would last just one night; however, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days and eight nights. This is why the holiday is also known as the “Festival of Lights.”

In celebration of this miracle, Hanukkah food traditions include a variety of dishes that are fried in oil. One such dish is the latke, which is a potato pancake made of shredded potatoes mixed with various ingredients and fried in oil. Potatoes are a source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, folic acid, and carbohydrates. The immune-boosting onion is also a common ingredient, which is naturally antibiotic and antifungal, reduces the risk of a heart attack, combats cancer, and lowers cholesterol. Deep-frying in poor quality oil, however, can decrease the nutritive properties of this dish, so try pan-frying at low temperatures in a moderate amount of health-supportive oil rich in phyto-nutrients such as extra virgin olive oil. Or, for a different flavor, try using sweet potatoes instead of russet and enjoy the added calcium, magnesium, potassium, and immune-boosting beta-carotene. The delicious sweet potato helps to save your eyesight, lifts your mood, combats cancer, strengthens bones, and brightens the skin.


Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that lasts from December 26 through January 1 and incorporates festival traditions from all African nations and Jamaica. Each day of Kwanzaa (a Kiswahili word meaning “first fruits”) is identified with one of seven principles to celebrate the goals of building a strong family, learning about African-American history, and developing unity: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Because Kwanzaa pulls elements from so many different cultures, the food traditions associated with this holiday are various. Sesame seeds are believed to bestow luck, so one common food item served during Kwanzaa celebrations are sesame cookies known as Benne Cakes. They are sweet, crunchy wafers made of toasted sesame seeds, brown sugar, vanilla, and other ingredients.

Sesame seeds, like all seeds, are a powerful booster food. They offer a full range of amino acids, protein, essential fatty acids, magnesium, zinc, calcium, potassium, and chromium. They help to improve skin, memory, mood, fat-burning, inflammation, blood sugar, hormone balance, and energy. For a Benne Cake that is more blood sugar friendly, try using palm sugar instead of brown sugar in your recipe. Palm sugar is naturally very low on the Glycemic Index, and therefore may be an ideal sweetener for weight management.


Food is more than just something we put in our mouths – especially when it’s eaten in celebration. As you’re preparing for whatever feast you may have on your calendar, take some time to consider what foods might be there. If your family is like mine, each person generally brings the same signature dish each year – a scrumptious, integral part of the holiday that everyone expects and looks forward to. Whatever food you bring, take a few minutes to research the health-supportive qualities of your main ingredients and also consider a way to make your dish more nutritive by adding or substituting an ingredient or two. Sharing this knowledge with your family can add even more meaning and enjoyment to eating together.

Good health to you and happy holidays!


Bauman, E. and Friedlander, J. (2011). Foundations of Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College Press

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Kwanzaa – A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture (2008). Retrieved from The Official Kwanzaa Website:

Kwanzaa (African-American) (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Kansas Medical Center Diversity Calendar:

Maccabees (2011). Retrieved from Wikipedia: