Winter is rich with holiday celebrations throughout the world. Many of these are tied historically to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year and a time of fear of the darkness and end of the harvest. The celebrations often include rituals and symbols representing the return of light and the beginning of a new cycle. Some older traditions have been incorporated into religious practices and given new meanings. Religions have also developed or invented newer traditions.
Food and eating are usually a part of these celebrations. Some foods are officially symbolic (for example, candy canes for Christmas), while others become associated with the holiday through common usage. Eating together, sharing food, and giving gifts of food are frequent activities, representing the ideas of generosity and good will that are promoted this time of year. These activities also connect us to the season, to religion or spirituality, and to each other.
Light and fire are also common themes throughout most winter holidays. Food is often tied to those also in that it might be used to present light or be shaped in the form of candles. It might also appear in forms easily eaten around light—bonfires, firecrackers, Christmas trees, luminaria, fires in the hearth.
Many individuals and families develop their own holiday traditions or add their own twists to common ones. We emphasize here the ways in which these food traditions connect us to larger forces beyond ourselves—nature, the cycle of the sun, spiritual beliefs, groups of people.