Two Christmas dinners for me!

In Ethiopia they have lamb for Christmas, Sri Lankans opt for pork, and in Estonia, relatives who have passed away join the meal... CHRIS McGINLEY sees how other cultures celebrate Yuletide
Two Christmas dinners for me!
Athula Kuruppuachchige and his family.

THEY say Christmas comes but once a year — but there are some exceptions.

Fitsum Kinfe, an Ethiopian chef living in Cork for the last 13 years, will, like most people in Cork, be enjoying a traditional turkey dinner on Christmas Day. But because the Ethiopian orthodox church uses a different calendar, she will also be celebrating Ethiopian Christmas, called Ganna, two weeks later, only this time without the turkey.

‘Every house in Ethiopia slaughters a lamb on Christmas Day,’ she explained. “It’s like a party. Every house makes its own honey wine, called taj, and throughout the day people move from house to house, sharing food, drinking and sometimes dancing.”

Fitsum Kinfe.
Fitsum Kinfe.

Fitsum recalls with a smile the time she brought her partner, James, back to Ethiopia for Christmas. “I had to drag him away from the party,” she laughs.

She found the exchanging of presents unusual when she first came to Ireland.

“In Ethiopia, it’s more about getting together and sharing food and drink. No-one is left alone, and everyone is welcome,” she said.

On January 7 next year, while the rest of us are wondering how to shift the extra padding that usually appears around our waistlines over Christmas, Fitsum will be sitting down with friends and family, both Ethiopian and Irish, at a table spread with traditional Ethiopian Christmas food.

On the menu will be a chicken stew called doro wot, iyeb, a type of cottage cheese, breads called dabo and injera, which are used instead of cutlery for mopping up the food, and a lamb stew called alicha wot, which is cooked with a mix of Ethiopian herbs and spices.

Fitsum won’t be killing the lamb herself this year though, preferring to outsource that particular job to a butcher.

She will not be the only one celebrating Christmas in a different way in Cork. A Sri Lankan Christmas is much like an Ethiopian one, at least in the way that it involves moving around from house to house.

“The weather is much better there,” Athula Kuruppuachchige said by way of explanation.

It makes sense that, in the cold, wet or snowy winters of northern Europe, people want to stay indoors and celebrate Christmas in front of a fire. But in warmer countries like Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, moving from house to house, out in the sun, is a much more feasible option.

Athula went on to explain that even though most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, his wife Amila is Christian so they will celebrate Christmas.

There are not many Sri Lankans in Ireland, much less Christian ones, but every year about 40 Sri Lankan families, comprising about 200 people, gather in one place to celebrate the festive season together.

“Most of the Sri Lankans here are chefs like me, so we can always find a hotel with a Sri Lankan head chef that can book up the entire hotel for us for the day,” explained Athula.

Each family then does their part in providing a dish or two for the meal. Some food will be prepared in advance like Sri Lankan rice crackers or beautifully shaped cakes called kokis, which are made from a deep-fried rice flour and coconut batter. The rest will be cooked on the day in the hotel’s kitchen.

Although he is a chef with years of international experience, Athula won’t be cooking on Christmas Day. ‘My wife is better than me at cooking Sri Lankan food, so she will be making our contributions to the meal,” he said.

“Pork is the most important ingredient for Sri Lankan Christians. There will be a variety of pork dishes, a lot of curries, but also stews.”

To go with the pork, there will be numerous rice dishes and salads, but another key ingredient for a successful Christmas in Sri Lanka is king coconut wine.

“We can’t get king coconuts here, but a friend of mine is already brewing a wine from the coconut milk you can buy in the shops,” said Athula.

Other people, such as Irena Tammik, an Estonian artist living in Douglas, can’t wait until Christmas to have their big meal. She will be sitting down to Christmas dinner on December 24, not only with her family and friends, but with her ancestors too.

“It’s a family time, and by that, I mean that it extends to the ancestors also,” explained Irena. “There are lots of customs relating to keeping food on the tables throughout the festivities for your ancestors.”

Irena Tammik.
Irena Tammik.

And the food?

“Pork, and lots of it. Even the bread will be shaped like a pig,” she replied.

Traditionally, much like in Ireland, every part of the pig gets used.

“The pig’s feet are made into a jellied meat dish called sült,” Irena said of her favourite Christmas food.

“In Estonia, the ground can be frozen for four or five months so we have to make use of everything and we rely a lot on pickled or fermented food. We will have pickled gherkins, mushrooms and other things gathered and preserved during the warmer months.’

As her partner, Michelangelo, is Italian, Christmas won’t be completely Estonian in their house. Antipasti and Italian wine will sit next to the roasted pork, sauerkraut, sült, nuts, apples and homemade gingerbread on their table.

“I just hope that my ancestors forgive me for giving them prosecco instead of the traditional home brewed beer,” Irena laughed.

Christmas is celebrated in many ways and with many different foods, but spending time with others, be it family or friends, is one common tradition that links them all.

And no matter what we eat or drink, the mountain of dishes to be washed afterwards will be the same sobering sight for everyone.

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