Thursday, December 17, 2009

Moving toward our Christmas Eve Dinner—a feast within a fast!

Christmas Eve is now just over a week away, and many of us mothers and other cooks are beginning to plan for it.

Traditions for Christmas Eve dinner are among the most complex and interesting in the Christian tradition. This meal is both a feast—always a glorious, delicious repast—and, simultaneously, a fast: a meal of abstinence from meat, since this is the last day of Advent. So we will have that paradox: a feast within a fast—joyful abstinence!

This is a dinner full of symbolic details, as well. Many beautiful and interesting traditions are associated with this dinner, which has always been considered a special and deeply religious meal. (I welcome hearing about your traditions, in Comments.)

* Over this dinner there lies a hush—this is the night Christ is born. To bring this hush home to your family, perhaps have your table lit by candle-light?

* One Russian custom is that the dinner begins when the first star—symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem—has appeared in the sky.

* In Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe, at the start of the meal the father blesses bread—or special wafers called Vigilia—and hands a piece to each family member with a kiss, wishing each one a blessed Christmas. Such a beautiful tradition!

* This is a meal that—even more than most—should have a grace both at its start and at its conclusion.

* Once the meal has begun, no one should get up and leave the table. This is to reaffirm and solidify the bonds of family unity.

* An extra seat should be set aside to remember any family members who are missing—and to welcome Christ himself. Again, we reaffirm family and Christian unity, as well as our openness to the coming of Christ.

* Many dishes are strongly traditional: served just once a year, at this particular dinner. (A Continual Feast contains many of these special dishes, from around the world.) Each family can put together its own set of special traditions for the Christmas Eve meal—dishes your family members will look forward to eagerly, from year to year. You might invite your children to help you think about what these favorite dishes should be—help create that menu, which they can perhaps write out for the family.

* Interesting traditions also bear on the number of courses. (As I said, everything takes on meaning in this great meal!) In Poland, there are to be fourteen courses: one for Christ, one for his Mother, and one for each of the Apostles. In other parts of Eastern Europe, custom has it that the Christmas Eve meal should consist of an odd number of courses— five, seven, nine, eleven. (Odd numbers have, since Antiquity, been considered lucky. Moreover, Christianity, like Judaism, has always been interested in number symbolism: the Bible is full of numbers with symbolic meaning!)

* Five reminds us of the five wounds of Christ.

* Seven is the number of perfection—the days of creation. Nine—the nine choirs of angels.

* Eleven generally refers to the Faithful Apostles—that is, the Twelve minus Judas Iscariot; thus, in the famous old folksong “Green Grow the Rushes Ho”—eleven is for “The Eleven who went up to heaven.”)

A not-very-complicated five-course Christmas Eve dinner might consist of: a light soup, pasta with a meatless sauce, fish, salad, and dessert.

To move it up to seven is a cinch: you might add an appetizer and an additional dessert.

It takes some work—and inventive fun—to get up to an eleven- or a fourteen-course meal! A few tips if you want to give it a try. Serve several, quite small courses. Here are some examples:

* Add a second, somewhat different salad—and/or pass a bowl of tasty olives.

* Serve thin pieces of cheese quiche—or the Swiss Onion and Cheese Tart, on p. 84 of A Continual Feast.

* Add another small pasta dish—using pasta of a very different shape, and with a different sauce.

* Add a little vegetable dish, such as sautéed sliced mushrooms and/or artichoke hearts, with capers and chopped scallions.

* Bring on a cheese course—two or three nice cheeses, with bread or crackers.

* Somewhere around halfway down the line, maybe serve small bowls of sherbet to refresh and cleanse the palate.

* And—last but not least!—if you are going down this fun but ambitious road, I recommend using pretty paper plates and bowls to cut down on the number of dishes! Or else, reuse the same plates a lot. (You want the dish-doers to still love you at the end of this meal, and not grind their teeth or even holler—that would rather disturb the hush!—when they see the state of the kitchen!)

Coming soon: our post for Christmas Dinner!


  1. And don't forget about multiplying desserts!

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  3. It is sad that some of these wonderful traditions are disappearing - but maybe your blog can (hopefully!) revitalize them?