How These Historic Christmas Foods Evolved Across Time & Cultures

Christmas foods in India are an amalgamation of the country's diverse topography, history, and traditions. While each dinner table hosts a uniqueness, some variety of Christmas delicacies have stood the test of time and remain ubiquitous.

Tanya Savkoor
New Update
christmas food

Image: Alamy

As the Christmas season rings in, a symphony of tantalising scents and flavours envelops households around the world. The jubilant festive season is accompanied by a gastronomical odyssey that not only nourishes the body but also tells a tale. Each dish is tweaked to the liking of different palettes or to fit the shifting cultures. The diverse tapestry of food carries traditions and cultures from across generations and different parts of the world to one table. 


While each dinner table across the world, or even across India, is adorned by varying cultural Christmas foods, some of the classic dishes are present almost everywhere. These dishes have stood the test of time and different topographies to make their way to almost all Christmas plates, sometimes modified, sometimes adhering to textbook recipes. Let's have a look at the history behind some of these iconic dishes.

Christmas Fruit Cake

The rich fruity Christmas cake is said to have its roots in 16th-century Europe, where it was more like a dense bread, made with ingredients like dried fruits, nuts, and spices. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert popularised many Christmas traditions including the cake.

The folklore behind Christmas cake is diverse, just like its presence in different cultures. In England, the cake originated as a porridge eaten on Christmas Eve after a day of fasting. In Ireland and many other cultures, the tart-sweet baked dish is associated with the Twelfth Night of Christmas, also known as Little Christmas or Women's Christmas.

The reason behind this nomenclature is that the Twelfth Night was considered an occasion for women to kick back after the labour of the festive season. On Women's Christmas, the ladies invited friends and family for a soiree, decking the dinner table with a feast, wine, and of course, the cake. 

In India, the "plum cake" as we know it, was introduced in 1883 by Mambally Bapu, a local baker from Thalassery, Kerala, who made the cake on an order from a British planter, Murdoch Brown. Bapu tweaked the original recipe to fit the Indian climate and tastebuds, laden with cashews, apples, and a local banana variant called kadalippazham, ditching the booze.


Another Christmas cake called Allahabadi cake originated in present-day Prayagraj, made with dry fruits, pistachios, almonds, raisins, and ghee. It is decorated with kewra (screwpine) and gulkand (rose petal marmalade), and moistened with rose water. The tradition of prepping the elaborate cake months before Christmas is prevalent to this day.

allahabadi cake
Allahabadi cake | Image: Slurrp

Elizabeth Sheril from Kanyakumari shared how her father soaks the dry fruits and spices for a year to make the rich plum cake for their annual Church bake sale. "My father is our head chef. He is responsible for all Christmas delicacies and he prepares them well ahead of time. He soaks the raisins, cashews, tutti fruity, cinnamon and some other spices for a year in fruit juice. He does not use alcohol because some people in my family don't like alcohol or are recovering from addiction. So he has tweaked it that way, and even if it is not the original recipe, it tastes pretty much the same," she said.

Annette Maria Luiz also shared her Anglo-Indian family's traditions. She said, "In our family, the dry fruits for the plum cake are soaked in rum or wine a month before Christmas... My family is big on making all the dishes at home because it is very hard for caterers or store-bought cakes or foods to match what we make at home. The women in my family-- my mother, my aunts-- they're all really good cooks." She added that although the women in her family sometimes think of ordering from caterers, it is the men who want want it the traditional way.

Cookies, Biscuits, And The Likes

A variety of crunchy, sweet baked goods are reminiscent of Christmas around the world. Some cookies are saccharine, while some have a mild spice or sweet-savoury blend. A classic festive treat is gingerbread, which takes the form of cookies and gingerbread houses. The earliest known records of gingerbread trace back to ancient Greece, making gingerbread by combining honey, flour, and ginger, creating a cake-like treat. 


Later, the recipe for gingerbread spread to Europe during the Middle Ages, thanks to the Crusaders who brought back spices like ginger from the Middle East. Gingerbread became associated with religious festivals and was often shaped into elaborate designs, depicting scenes from religious stories or shaped into figures like animals, saints, and even kings and queens.

Another Christmas favourite is the sugar cookie-- made with the simplest ingredients like sugar, flour, and butter. While it is said to have originated in Medieval Europe, it became more common in 18th-century America, coinciding with the availability of refined sugar. During the 19th century, especially around the Christmas season, sugar cookies became a canvas for intricate designs and decorations, and in the 20th century, the advent of cookie cutters and tools further gave way to creativity galore.

In India, we have kulkul, a fried or baked treat made of flour, sugar, coconut milk, and sometimes semolina for texture. It is a Portuguese inheritance made in Goa and coastal Karnataka. "Although I don't live in Karwar (North Karnataka coast) anymore, I feel close to home when I make kulkuls for Christmas," shared Leena, who now lives in Australia. She said that her Christmas in the Australian summer is celebrated as a beach party with her friends.

Kulkuls | Image: Aromatic Essence

In Kerala, "rose cookies" are more prominent. Traditionally called achappam, these are sweet fried goodies known for their flower-like shape. It gets its shape (and name) from a mould which in Malayalam, is called "achu". Apparently, the achappam was brought to the Malabar region by Dutch traders from the East India Company. While some families like their achappams mildly sweet and spiced like a snack, some others like it coated with sugar syrup to eat as dessert.

rose cookies
Achappam |  Image: South Side Habits

The Great Christmas Feast


These Christmas dishes do not even scratch the surface of the elaborate and diverse foods that most families across India indulge in. On Christmas day, families get together for a feast complete with meat, wine, and desserts. Even if traditions and cultures across families vary, a grand Christmas meal is ubiquitous. 


"We celebrate Christmas with a big group of people and have a potluck, where each person makes one dish and brings it. We make cake, appam, stew, fried chicken, seafood dishes, pork vindaloo, beef fry, duck roast, cutlets, and more. We also have a dish called pork roast which is eaten with a mustard paste. That paste is made a few days ahead of Christmas so it gets fermented properly and then it can be stored for about a year," said Annette Maria.

Irine Varghese from Kerala said that her family prefers store-bought Christmas cake and wine. "In our family, we buy the cake and wine from out because it takes so much time to make. We follow a fast for 25 days before Christmas where we don't eat meat, and on the day of Christmas we break the fast after mass and have chicken, seafood, and beef for our meal," she said.

Celebrations Beyond Communities

Owing to the lingering joy that the festive season brings with it, people who traditionally do not celebrate Christmas also join in on the fun. Many people from other communities try their hand at baking Christmas goodies or celebrate the festivities with a feast. Aishwarya S, a part-time food content creator from Bengaluru shared her sweet memories with Christmas. 

Sharing that she has prepped dry fruits for plum cake this year she said, "My earliest memory of Christmas is watching those Christmas movies which got me into the spirit of Christmas even though we don't traditionally celebrate it. My granddad used to take us out for breakfast or lunch on Christmas day, and on the way back he bought us a cake and I cherish that memory a lot... Thanks to the Covid lockdown I got into baking and that year for Christmas I went all out and experimented with so many recipes-- plum cake, gingerbread cookies, rum balls, cinnamon buns, and many more, but plum cake is a tradition I would like to carry forward because it brings back so many childhood memories." 

christmas food evolution
Rum balls, cinnamon buns, plum cake, and wreath salad made by Aishwarya S 

Similar to Aishwarya, Jehan Nizar, a Chennai-based food writer, researcher and journalistic educator shared an interesting anecdote about how festivities were enjoyed in Dubai, where she spent her childhood. 

She said, "Growing up in Dubai, the one old-school tradition that was synonymous with Christmas for my mum and I was buying the season’s first loaf of fruit cake... Traditionally, the fruit is soaked in rum about two or three months in advance, to give it a boozy hit. In countries like the UAE, alcohol-free versions were more commonly churned out in keeping with Muslim sensibilities, but I’m still amused by the fact that people in the know would go to some of the Indian bakeries and stealthily ask for some under-the-table “special” (read spiked) Christmas cake - sort of akin to turning up at a speakeasy and being asked for a code word."

Both Aishwarya and Nizar were enthusiastic to share their expounded memories of Christmas, proving that the merriness of festivities is spread across different communities. Food is a grand part of any festivity as it unites people from various backgrounds, making it an integral part of historic culture. While different families have their unique traditions, the spirit of Christmas is felt by all.

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