So This Is Christmas: Four Food-Lovers Share Their Holiday Traditions

By Maggie Wicks
Yeshi Desta of My Mother's Kitchen. Photo / Babiche Martens

Regardless of culture, for most New Zealanders Christmas and the summer months mean family, food, slowing down and enjoying being together, reflecting on the year that has been, and looking forward to the year to come.

Viva spoke to four New Zealanders about their unique takes on an Antipodean Christmas.

Yeshi Desta, owner of Ethiopian pop-up restaurant My Mother’s Kitchen

Christmas in Ethiopia is celebrated on January 7, and is a much more religious affair, with 45 days of fasting and all-night church services.

Yeshi says wherever she celebrates Christmas, both versions are in their essence about the same thing. “I like that Christmas is about bringing people together, regardless. At the end of the day, they’re both about eating a turkey or whatever, and hanging out with family or neighbours.”

What does Christmas look like in your house?

I don’t have family here, so for me, Christmas in New Zealand is about friends. I have a nice sleep-in and then have friends over or go to someone’s house, and just chill for the day. I’ll be hanging out with a lot of people that are not Kiwis or people that also don’t have family here.

My friends are from all over the place — English, Chilean, Venezuelan, Indian, and French. We’ve got every continent in one place which is so nice and interesting and we all hang out and eat and drink wine.

What’s on the menu?

I always bring Champagne, wine, and a plate, because no one wants to do all the cooking, you just want to chill. I’ll make doro wot [Ethiopian chicken stew] — it’s like our national dish. It’s slow-cooked, and has a lot of spices, chilli, korarima which is Ethiopian black cardamom; it’s a really hearty dish — yummy, warm, saucy, and spicy.

And you eat it with injera [Ethiopian bread] which is so delicious. It’s a piece of home. I cook what I like to eat on Christmas Day.

What’s Christmas like back home?

Ethiopia is very religious, it’s a spiritual time. When I first came to New Zealand, Christmas was a bit of a culture shock to be honest, because it was about, ‘what are you going to give me? what am I giving you?’ And at the beginning, I didn’t understand, because we don’t do gifts.

In Ethiopia, there’s a strong church culture. We celebrate Christmas on January 7, and everyone fasts for 45 days before that. We don’t need any animal products, we go completely vegan, and each day until around 12pm or 2pm we don’t eat anything.

The night before Christmas, we’ll go to church — it’s orthodox Christian so the service is really long. We’ll go at out 8pm and spend the night there, right until the early morning, whether that’s 2am or 6am. It’s quite different from what you are used to here.

On Christmas Day, it’s common to have a home kill — to go and buy a sheep or a cow if you have a really big family, or share it with the neighbours. We have a lot of food, and you invite everybody — you don’t let anyone go hungry.

We’ll have coffee in the morning — coffee is a massive thing in Ethiopian culture — and we all wear our traditional white clothes. We give a little money to the kids, but we don’t give gifts.

And what’s to drink?

Tella is the typical drink for Christmas Day. It’s homemade alcohol, which is delicious.

What customs from your culture do you bring into your New Zealand Christmas?

On January 7, I like to invite a lot of my friends to come and have lunch with me. I’ve always loved to cook, even before I had the business, so I always invited a lot of people to my house on that day for a massive meal. I cook all my favourite dishes and sit down and enjoy them.

Then I started My Mother’s Kitchen and had an opportunity to show people how we celebrate and what we eat, so last year I did lunch with a massive table, and about 22 people booked a chair to have an Ethiopian Christmas.

I cooked all my favourite dishes for the celebration — we ate and drank and talked, and shared culture and laughter, and it was fantastic.

I always make coffee because it’s a big part of the culture, there’s a whole ceremony — you get green beans, you roast them and then you grind them. It’s the freshest coffee you’ve ever had, and delicious.

How do you celebrate New Year’s Eve?

I don’t have any plans so far, but usually I’ll go to a friend’s house or my house for the evening. I like going to someone’s house or people coming to my house and just having drinks and music, and enjoying a bit of dancing, and you know, happy days.

Isabel Pasch, owner of the European bakery Bread & Butter bakery, Grey Lynn. Photo / Babiche Martens
Isabel Pasch, owner of the European bakery Bread & Butter bakery, Grey Lynn. Photo / Babiche Martens

Isabel Pasch, owner of the European bakery Bread & Butter Bakery, Grey Lynn

Born in Germany, Isobel says Germans take Christmas very seriously.

“So many Christmas traditions originate in Germany. I think if you want to preserve a tradition, you have to stay true to it, so maybe it’s the German fastidiousness that keeps certain traditions alive for so long, and that’s why they are so strong in Germany.”

In the weeks before Christmas Isobel decorates the house and creates a wreath for the front door. Later she will put out her mother’s collection of traditional baubles and decorations. And there is always a tree: “Always the biggest we can find.”

The baking begins even earlier — in November. “It’s a German tradition to bake lots of little Christmas biscuits. I only make about eight different varieties but my sister goes absolutely mad — she bakes every other day from the middle of November, and she has about 30 different varieties of biscuits. It’s just crazy.”

What does Christmas look like in your house?

In Germany, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. I always take the children to St Patrick’s cathedral — we go every year, mainly because I love the carols and the nativity play.

After that we come home for a simple dinner — just sausages and a fancy potato salad. It’s a light meal — you want to leave room to eat the biscuits.

Then we would go into the lounge, play Christmas carols, we have Champagne and then we take turns unwrapping the presents.

What’s for Christmas lunch?

On Christmas Day, we celebrate with a big meal. If we’re having a German meal, we might do vol-au-vent with veal and mushroom stew with a light salad, and then for dessert we have a raspberry fool, raspberries folded through whipped cream and that gets served with a specific type of biscuit.

For the Kiwi version, we might do a bright colourful salad with glazed ham or a side of salmon.

And what are you drinking?

My husband’s a beer drinker. He usually drinks beer. I usually have some form of cocktail — Aperol spritz has been a favourite of mine for a long time, something a bit colourful and light and summery.

What elements of your culture make an appearance?

The Christmas period starts on the first of Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas, and that’s when I put out the decorations.

Everyone in the family has a favourite Christmas decoration that goes on the tree. One of my favourites is a set of handmade Russian baubles with a silky covering; they are absolutely beautiful. My mum bought them at a flea market in Berlin.

Other favourites are traditional straw stars and angels. I love them — my mum gave them to me when we were moving to New Zealand. We had a big 40-foot container with all our stuff that came from Germany, and out of the whole 40-foot container MPI picked up those straw stars and said, “You can’t bring them in, we’re going to have to destroy them unless you pay to fumigate them.” And of course, I had to do it — it was $300 to get literally a handful of straw fumigated.

I also have a hand-blown glass tip for the tree from the oldest German Christmas market in Dresden, which is where stollen is from. That tradition was invented in Dresden by the King of Saxony in the 1300s, and they’ve had a Christmas market there ever since. It’s one of the biggest, most famous German Christmas markets; it’s absolutely stunning and this really long, unbroken tradition.

What about Boxing Day?

We always host a big Boxing Day barbecue. All our friends and their children come around, and we cook a big chunk of meat on the barbecue.

We also play a dice rolling game we call Tombola, which takes quite a while because everybody brings a present and then you swap and try to get the best one.

On a four all the presents go one way, and on a five they go the other — they’re all wrapped so you don’t know what you’re trying to get, and it’s quite funny.

What should the guests bring?

We host from two to six or seven other families, so we have to make sure we have enough food for everyone.

We give very detailed instructions, like, you bring a green salad with some cheese, and you bring a starchy salad, you bring some cheese and entrees, and you bring something for the kids.

My husband gets the honour of cooking a huge piece of meat on the barbecue because he loves doing that while drinking beer. And obviously, we always have bread and two or three desserts.

How will you celebrate New Year’s Eve?

I still struggle with Christmas in summer, but New Year’s in summer is amazing. I never want to have a winter New Year’s again.

When I was younger and didn’t have children, we’d have a big party or go to a festival and dance all night. But obviously, with having kids and a business, that has fallen by the wayside a little bit. So it’s usually pretty quiet, and we never really do anything on New Year’s Day — just being hung over.

Jason Kim, owner and chef of Tokki, with his family. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jason Kim, owner and chef of Tokki, with his family. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jason Kim, owner and chef of Tokki restaurant in Milford and Gochu in Commercial Bay

For Koreans, the end of each year is a time for reflection and family. This involves paying respects to family members who have died, gathering together to reflect on the year that has passed, and looking forward to the future.

“Around Christmas is when we get ready for the new year,” says Jason Kim, owner and chef of Tokki restaurant in Milford and Gochu in Commercial Bay, and former chef at Sid Sahrawat’s Sidart and Cassia. “It’s not like some big festival. We just focus on gathering the whole family together in our house, and spending time together.”

This year Jason will celebrate with his wife, children, parents and extended family at their Auckland home.

How do you get ready?

We do a massive house clean, top to toe, everything. It’s a lot of work, but we believe a clean house means more happiness coming in.

We gather the whole family together up in our house. We have enough room to have all the different cousins and relatives at my house, and the whole family prepares food together. It could be soups, rice dishes, grilled fish — we prepare a kind of offering to our ancestors, those who have died.

Then, we go to the cemetery together. The whole family goes and we clean up the cemetery and take some food and flowers — we’re showing our face to our grandparents or great-grandparents.

At home, we’ll make the food that our ancestors liked to eat. We believe that our ancestors come and join us in our little celebrations, so we make their favourites, we put everything on the tables and just remember the time [when they were with us].

We’ll talk about what we’ve done this year, what we can do, and what was memorable. Then the grandparents give a good word wish to their grandchildren, the kids bow to the grandparents, and then the grandparents give the kids a little money to wish all them luck for the next year.

What’s for lunch?

We make all the food together. I’ll organise everything and get the food — my parents have a little Korean restaurant in Highbury, so they work hard, six days every week. The whole family will come to my house so we can share the food, share the experience, share the happiness.

We might make some rice cake soup, some traditional Korean noodle dishes, some dumplings, some sweet rice cakes with sesame and sugar, or red bean paste — very traditional Korean home food.

You’re not just making 20 or 50 dumplings. It can be like 300 or 400 dumplings. The kids join as well — they can be a weird shape sometimes, but it’s just part of gathering and joining together.

What do you drink?

We drink Korean rice wines called makgeolli. It’s made from rice, but it’s more of a yoghurty-looking drink. They all need importing straight from Korea.

The good ones are hard to get, but all the commercial ones we still can get here. It’s not like fancy Champagne or fancy wines, but our culture is to drink it while we get ready.

How about New Year’s Eve?

New Year’s Eve in Korea is massive. I’m finally going back to Korea at the end of this year — it’s been a while.

My parents immigrated to New Zealand in 2001 so all my side of the family is here, but my wife’s family are still in Korea. So we are planning to go, see family, gather up, remember what we’ve all been through, make some food, and we’ll see the fireworks as well.

 Carmel Davidovitch and Tomer from Carmel Israeli Street Food. Photo / Babiche Martens
Carmel Davidovitch and Tomer from Carmel Israeli Street Food. Photo / Babiche Martens

Carmel Davidovitch, owner of Carmel Israeli Street Food

Carmel Davidovitch was born in New Zealand but grew up in Israel with her Māori/Pākehā mum and an Israeli dad. She returned to New Zealand in 2016 with her husband Tom and has since opened Carmel Israeli Street Food, which is known for its delicious falafel, cloud-like pita bread, and chocolate-filled babka.

“My mum grew up Catholic and converted when she married my dad. Food is a big deal in Israel, and any holiday or occasion revolves around food when it comes to Israel and Jewish people. Every time the story is like: ‘The bad guys came, they tried to destroy us and we managed to escape. Okay, let’s eat.’ That’s basically the story for all the holidays.”

Growing up in Israel, Carmel celebrated Hannukah, which this year begins on December 18. And when she’s in New Zealand she celebrates Christmas with her mum’s Catholic family.

“It’s about company more than anything. Culturally, we’re very much people-oriented people, and we’re interested in other people’s stories and the way they grew up. Of course, the food is a really big component, but it’s not the focus. I think the gathering is the focus for us; it’s more about being together, and spending time.

What does this time of year look like in your house?

I’m Jewish, and I grew up in Israel, but I grew up secular, so we didn’t really practice anything except the cultural part of it. So even the holidays and the stories behind the holidays we know them but we take them, I guess, a bit more as folklore stories.

In Israel, Christmas is not a thing, but we have another holiday, Hanukkah, which is quite big, especially for children. It’s eight days and every day you gather with your friends or family, and you light the candle on the Hannukah menorah.

What’s to eat?

At Hanukkah, the story is that the Jewish people were in the temple in Jerusalem, and the Romans came and destroyed the temple. The temple was a place of worship, and there was a menorah that was lit all the time. When the Romans ruined the place, they smashed all the olive oil barrels, so the menorah couldn’t be lit.

Then the Maccabees, which are the group of hero Jews that came to see what happened, found this really tiny little bottle of oil, and the miracle behind is that they had light for eight days out of this really tiny bottle.

So it was a miracle and we celebrate that by eating a lot of oily food. The two main things are all sorts of doughnuts, and latkes, which is a version of a hash brown.

What do you do on Christmas Day?

I’m part of a very, very big — my mum is one of eight siblings, and they all live around here. So we spend Christmas Day with our Christian family celebrating Christmas. We meet up, and we’ll probably have a barbecue, depending on the weather.

Tom and I really love to host so a few years ago, we decided to gather all our friends on Christmas Eve, all the Christmas orphans who didn’t have families in New Zealand, and we made a big feast, just like we would do for any of our holidays.

We had some Italians coming, so we made focaccia bread from scratch, and we made picanha, which is a sort of roast beef in the oven. We had salad, of course, because Israelis can’t do without salads. And then we made profiteroles for dessert.

Any traditions from your culture that you incorporate?

We would always use a bit of sumac or cardamom, we use zaatar, which is a type of wild thyme. And I’m sure one hundred per cent we had hummus and tahini on the table, some hot sauce, some labneh. Those are our go-tos. You always have those things to nibble on.

And to drink?

Lots of wine — we really love New Zealand white wine, and of course beer for the boys. And on many occasions, when it’s festive, we take out the blender and whip up some margaritas or something a bit more special. But my brothers are in charge of that part.

What will you do for New Year’s Eve?

For us it’s more like a fun night, there’s no significance to it because Jewish people have a different new year. Here you have holiday so we do say, like, okay, let’s go to the beach or do something fun.

We sometimes go out to Rakino Island, we have a family bach there. But just because it’s a holiday, not because it’s New Year’s. It’s like a long weekend for us. We used to [stay up late], but I think we are becoming more and more Kiwi in that matter.

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