Christmas is an occasion that we know was linked to the sun cult of Zoroastrianism and its sol invictus, long before it became a Christian holiday. The date of December 25th marking the birth of Christ links Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Evangelists-Lutherans. The Eastern, Coptic, and Armenian Greek-Orthodox churches celebrate on 7 January. At least in the Mediterranean it represents the beginning of festivities for the end of the year, celebrated by all peoples, reaching beyond religious convictions and the Liturgical year of one’s faith.
As it is also the celebration of the family in the layman’s interpretation, it is the ultimate representation of the concept of nutrition and family gatherings around the table. This is why food becomes particularly important, and over time and in different places, cultural exchanges were overwhelming. Besides, from a doctrinal viewpoint, the Muslim world has accepted the birth Christ considered the greatest prophet second only to Mohammed – and the figure of the Virgin Mary, the only woman called by name in the Koran and defined as being a “saint”.
It is above all in sweetness that this holiday is enjoyed, also for the decorative element is offers.
Dried fruits triumph in festive table settings, especially dates, the sacred fruit of Islam that is harvested in late October and readied in time for Christmas, packaged in various forms according to Arab recipes, filled with almond paste, pistachios, and dried fruit – as is the pomegranate.
In Sicily, besides the cassata, cannoli are typically found during this period, also because colder temperatures made it possible to preserve the ricotta for longer periods of time. Its origins are uncertain. Some people maintain that it is a Carnival dessert, other that it was created in a cloister. There have been some of the strangest legends tied to this sweet; still others say it was invented in a Saracenic ħarem to delight the sultan, in Caltanissetta, or the Arab city of kalt el-nisaoun, the castle of women.
Sicilian pasta dishes linked to Christmas tradition are sfincione, typical of the Palermo area, the equivalent of Neapolitan pizza, the name of which might derive from the Latin word spongia and from the Ancient Greek spòngos, or sponge, or from an Arab term to define a fritter made of dough and honey. The main ingredient is bread, soft and leavened, garnished with a sauce made of tomato, onion, anchovies, oregano, and pieces of caciocavallo, a hard smooth or strong pear shaped cheese from the area of Ragusa.
And let’s not forget about scaccia, a type of filled focaccia prepared for Christmas Eve and the timballo, a flan made of pasta or rice, seasoned with different ingredients prepared in the oven with rings-shaped pasta, fried aubergines, hard boiled eggs, peas, and cheese. Finally, pasta with sardines seems to date back to the time of Arab rule under the General Euphemius.
Armenin cuisine is rich, colourful, and elaborate, inspired by Middle Eastern tradition and the country was surrounded by Muslim peoples. At Christmas they prepare a dish called anush (sweet) abùr (soup), a classic example of intercultural exchange, served as a dessert. The widespread use of dried fruit, and just fruit in general, is typical of Armenia, which is famous for its orchards, especially apricots and pomegranate, walnuts, and almonds.
Even in Greece Christmas is a mix of traditions: kourabiedes, pastries made with almonds and goat milk, date back to the second half of the 1400s, after the Ottoman conquest. Legend narrate that Greek pastry chefs gave these sweets a crescent shape in honour of the new conquerors.
Even the Catholic country of Spain draws on some inspiration from the Arab world: a sort of nougat called torrone, especially the soft one from Jijona and the harder one from Alicante; and marzipan with almonds and sugar, usually made in the shape of “figures”, is often a basic ingredient in many desserts.
For Christians who find themselves celebrating Christmas in the southern Mediterranean, they will feel more at home in Tunisia and in Morocco where they will find both Sicilian and French traditions mixed with local ones.