What is your family’s food culture at holiday time?

Culture doesn’t have to be something exotic. What food traditions does your family have during the holidays?

What is culture? Often, people think of culture as a particular ethnic group. Everyone has their own way of going through life. This series of articles will help you look at your own culture and those around you, and maybe create some new traditions. By better understanding your own culture, hopefully you can understand and appreciate those around you.

Winter holidays are full of cultural traditions centered around food. Often, when multiple generations are in the home at once, it is a good time to ask questions and learn about family traditions and how they started. There are often foods and dishes that are only brought out at the holidays, so this is a great (and maybe the only) time to ask questions. You can also share memories with your family. Here are some potential examples of questions to ask.

  • Is there a tradition to how the family sits when they are all together? Is there a “kid’s table” or do the grandparents always sit in the same place?
  • Does a particular person always sits at the head of the table? Who used to sit at the head of the table? When and why did the transition occur?
  • Do you have a tradition of anything you do before the meal is served? Does a particular person pray? Does anyone give a toast?
  • Are there particular dishes or silverware that are used? Do you know where the dishes came from?
  • Is there a way the dishes are passed around the table?
  • Are there particular foods that are served? Do you have the recipes? Have you actually made them? (Often, relatives don’t make the dish exactly the way the recipe is written. Making the dish with the relative is often the only way to get the “real scoop.”)
  • Do certain foods always get eaten up first?
  • Are there traditions around making cookies, candy or other treats?
  • Are certain things always served on certain days?
  • Are there centerpieces on the table? Are there traditions in how the centerpiece is made or displayed?
  • Is the main dish carved in a particular way? Is there a particular platter or knife that is used?
  • Do you have a particular tablecloth or placemats? What are the origins of those items?
  • Do your relatives have any “forgotten foods” that someone who is now deceased used to make that they remember? Could you try to recreate it?
  • Are there certain foods that are newer traditions? Has anyone tried out a new recipe? What were the results?
  • Is dessert served at a particular time?
  • How are leftovers handled? Does the host keep them all or are they distributed? Do you make stock or soup?
  • Has anyone married into the family and brought new traditions with them?

All these items and more are part of your culture and traditions. Reflect on them this holiday season and think about which ones you want to carry on as you get older. Continue to explore them and those around you in your club, your community, your country and your world. You may look at some of these ideas and create some new traditions.

This article was inspired by and adapted from the 4-H Folkpatterns curriculum. For more information, see the Folkpatterns Leaders Guide and the 4-H Foodways Project.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website

Other articles in series

Did you find this article useful?