8 Feasting Holidays From Around the World (Besides Thanksgiving)
A little holiday inspiration if you want to mix things up this year.
Ritualistically gathering for debilitatingly excessive feasts is a shared human experience preceding the landing of the Mayflower by millennia. Early evidence points to Neolithic farmers dining on heaps of cattle at 10,000-year-old housewarming parties. Hell, in ancient Rome, devouring an overly fatty meal of wild boar doused in olive oil and wine before watching grown men carve up some lions is a tale as old as Commodus.
Modern gluttonous celebrations now span the world, celebrated in their countries of origin and the global diaspora. Some commemorate fall harvests and ancient customs. Others involve weeklong barbecues and buckets of whisky. If the thought of another warmed-over plate of green-bean casserole has you down, consider adopting one of these gluttonous traditions instead.
Where it’s celebrated: South Korea
When it goes down: On the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Next year, that falls on the 21st night of September.
This three-day harvest festival is dedicated to devouring as many half moon-shaped songpyeon —rice cakes pumped full of natural herbs as well as sweet and savory fillings like pumpkin, dates, or soybeans—as your stomach can handle. The songpyeon are steamed with pine needles, “so it smells like a forest,” according to Youn Sung, a sociology and anthropology PhD from Seoul.
There’s also another key ingredient to the entire meal, a bitter weed called ssuk, which Sung says also plays an integral role in the Korean tale of Dangun. Basically, a bear and a tiger who wish to become human are trapped in a cave for 100 days with only ssuk and garlic to eat (a great “would you rather” question). The tiger fled but the bear persevered, then transformed into a bear woman, who in turn gave diving birth to the god-king Dangun, founder of the first Korean kingdom. Because of the tale, Koreans now spend hours preparing the plant just for “a certain touch or smell” in the rice cakes—not even necessarily to eat it.
“The food itself is heaven, but a whole lot is about the ceremony for forefathers,” says Sung. “The ceremony is the most labor-intensive part, so it’s not really a celebration, but stress, which is kind of the Korean golden rule: time, endurance, dedication, and patience. The definition of a Korean holiday would be all these things, plus food. What a tiring life.”
Where it’s celebrated: Ghana
When it goes down: May-August
Homowo means “to hoot at hunger” in the Ga language, and that’s exactly what the Ghanaian tribe does at the start of every rain season. A far cry from your typical hangry hootin’ and hollerin’, the Ga begin the celebration by silently by planting maize for the upcoming festivities. During this pre-harvest period, there’s no drumming, no chanting, no noise making: Nothing at all that may disturb the Gods for 30 days (parents, rejoice!).
Upon the arrival of harvest season, the Kpokpoi parties begin. Parades of people march down the streets beating drums, dancing, and singing. Families visit loved ones who’ve passed. Gifts are exchanged. Disputes are resolved. Everybody comes together in Accra to eat the freshly harvested maize and near-endless bowls of palm-nut soup.
“We West Africans love food, and having gone through horrors like poverty and famines, I think we really do enjoy and give blessings to those traditional festivals in which we rejoice our crops and get together as family and kin,” says Adora Mba, founder of Ada contemporary art gallery in the Ghanaian capital of Accra.
Nowruz and Sizdah Bedar
Where it’s celebrated: Iran
When it goes down: From the vernal equinox (the first day of the Iranian calendar) through the 13 days that follow
The first thing Iranian-American writer Sarra Sedghi said when asked about the great Nowruz New Year feast was, “Okay, I don’t consider Nowruz a feast in the sense that Iranian culture is already incredibly focused on food. Pretty much any occasion is an excuse for food —even just going over to someone’s house.” But how could you call a two-week holiday, much of that centered around eating, anything but a feast?
In celebration for the arrival of spring, Iranians gather for plates of white fish and sabzi polow (basmati rice with herbs and lima beans), sabzi khordan (an herb platter with feta and flatbread), dolmeh, and more. The largest feast, however, occurs 13 days later on Sizdah Bedar, where families gather in parks for a sprawling picnic of doogh (yogurt soda), ash-e-reshteh (a thick noodle soup with beans), rice, and plenty of khoresht (stews).
“Without a doubt, Nowruz is my favorite holiday,” says Sedghi. “I guess it’s kind of like asking people why they like Christmas. Except rather than some cold-ass day [in December], we get to celebrate the anticipation or arrival of spring.”
Where it’s celebrated: Israel
When it goes down: Sukkot begins the 15th day of Tishrei and ends the 21st day of Tishrei, usually at the end of September or early October
Harvest festival meets religious remembrance meets… camping trip for seven days every autumn in Israel during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. The celebration begins on the first day by building and decorating a sukkah, a makeshift hut-like structure in which Jews stayed as they traveled during the exodus from Egypt. It's here where all meals must be consumed for the entirety of the holiday.
There is no particular food that represents the holiday. Since ancient times, culinary inspiration typically derives from the year’s harvest, as families often make kreplach, challah, soups, and kugels. The holiday is more about sitting and sharing food with family and friends inside the sukkah, as well as remembering that existence is fragile and impermanent. So enjoy your damn home and eat another dumpling—you’re nothing but skin and bones.
“For me Sukkot means family time, decorating the sukkah together and making it cosy and colourful,” says Shahar Tamir, Israel-born executive chef of Ibiza’s Sabina Clubhouse “I remember as a kid being excited to spend some time inside the sukkah with my family, having conversations, playing cards, and of, course lots of eating.”
Burns Night Supper
Where its celebrated: Scotland
When it goes down: January 25
Haggis, neeps & tatties (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes), vats of Scotch, and tartan-porn are all on tap every January across Scotland for the annual Burns Night Supper. Dedicated to poet Robert Burns— who spat 18th-century bars like “Auld Lang Syne”—the night revolves around the performative theater of… haggis.
First, there’s the “Piping in the Haggis,” where the dinner party stands as someone walks in holding a haggis on a silver plate to the tune of a bagpiper. This is then followed by “Addressing the Haggis,” where the head of the table reads aloud the poem, “Address to a Haggis.” At the line “His knife see rustic labor dight,” the haggis is cut, and everyone raises their whisky for the “Toast to the Haggis.” At which point, let the supper commence. Afterwards is a proper ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance that looks like a kilted square dance, complete with dosey-does and a drunk uncle passed out in the corner. Just what the doctor ordered after downing a few pounds of sheep innards.
“[The supper] is important to Scots, as Burns is our national poet and probably most famous figure,” says Laurie Cameron, a Scottish musician whose latest album, Something In Us Never Dies, retells the poems of Robert Burns. “We're taught as kids from around 5-years-old to memorize his most famous poems and recite them by heart in school. So it's ingrained in us from very young.”
Where it’s celebrated: China
When it goes down: As with The 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. If you have trouble remembering, just listen to a little Earth, Wind & Fire.
There are two major festivals in China. The first is the famous Chinese New Year, or the “Spring Festival.” The second is the lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, a time where Chinese families gather and spend a couple days dining on mooncake.
“It’s an excuse to get together, watch the moon, and eat cake,” says Xiaoxiao Liu, a Beijing native living in New York. “There’s a poem that says ‘every time it’s the [Mid-Autumn] season and you’re not home, you’ll miss your family whenever you see the moon.’”
In simplest terms, mooncake is a big round biscuit-like pastry. Depending on the region the crust may be flaky or chewy, with fillings ranging from sweet lotus paste, adzuki beans, or salty egg yolk to durian, ice cream, and even meats. Just about anything can be made into a mooncake.
“One time, I was in San Francisco... and I know their Chinatown sells mooncakes, so I found one with a dark yolk,” says Liu. “I bit in and it’s a fucking duck head. I don’t eat meat mooncakes in the US now. But it’s a good dessert.”
Where it’s celebrated: Poland
When it goes down: Christmas Eve
“There must be 12 dishes. You’ll have a bad year if it’s anything except 12 exactly. You don’t have 12? Make a second dessert,” says Jurek Chmielewski, a self-professed “typical Polish grandpa.”
Poland’s annual Christmas Eve feast, Wigilia is the most beloved tradition for many Poles, as much a test in gluttony as it is an exercise in superstitions.
For starters, those 12 courses all must be meatless. Pierogies need sauerkraut and mushrooms and then to be cooked in butter with onions. There needs to be a fish dish (ideally pickled herring). For a vegetable salad, every vegetable must be cut to the exact size of the peas because “it shows how much you love the people you’re serving,” says Chmielewski. On top of the food, there’s the sharing of the oplatek, a thin wafer similar to those served during communion at Catholic mass. You also must kiss—a simple hug won’t do unless you have it out for Auntie Petra!—every guest on the cheek. And for extra luck, you spit over each other’s shoulders. Oh, there’s also the requisite fast leading up to the holiday...
“The most important tradition is breaking the oplatek and sharing it with the entire family,” says Chmielewski. “Everyone breaks a little piece off. Even the pets get a piece. The wafer also needs to come from Poland, and you send it to family members outside of Poland to share the tradition.”
Where it’s celebrated: Greece
When it goes down: The Thursday of the second week of Greece’s Carnival
Every Thursday before Lent, the entire country of Greece gathers for a massive barbecue on the holiday of Tsiknopempti, a day dedicated to gorging on not just some meat, but all the meat. Translated as “Smoky Thursday,” the annual event —which, as if this couldn’t get any better, takes place during Kreatini or “meat week,” which just so happens to precede “Cheese Week”—serves as the gluttonous preparation before Lent, during which Greeks observe a pescatarian diet for 40 days.
There’s no particular dish at the forefront of the celebration. Rather it’s all about that succulent smoky scent. On most grills, you’ll find staples like souvlaki, steak, sausages, skewers: the essential S’s of the Hellenic grill-world. Most families, however, go all-out by roasting a whole lamb or pig on a spit.
“Basically, we barbecue all day,” says Greek chef Asimakis Chaniotis of London’s Michelin-starred Pied à Terre. “We’ll start in the morning, keep drinking, keep barbecuing, stop for a meal, then barbecue more, eat more. We stay for lunch, dinner, the whole day barbecuing and drinking.”
This may all sound like a typical college football Saturday in SEC country, but Tsiknopempti is ordained by God.
“There’s a speciality that we do here in Greece called Kokoretsi, which is basically lamb offal,” Chaniotis continues. “You have livers and lungs all diced and mixed together with salt, pepper, olive oil, and oregano, and then you skewer them on a very big spitting roast, and then you wrap all this offal with sheep or lamb intestine. You roll it all around and cook it on a spit, and it becomes crispy on the outside and you have all the offal bits on the inside. This is my favorite.”