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Taste-buds and Interfaith Bridge-building

By Vicki Garlock


The holiday season is upon us, which means we are all twice as busy as we were before. The family schedule becomes more complicated, mail-order boxes arrive almost daily on our doorstep, and every time I walk through the living room I find myself picking up a strand of tinsel that somehow jettisoned itself off our tree. And then the holiday meals to plan… Menu items scurry around in the back of my mind like sand crabs on the beach as I drive my kids around and run errands. Who’s bringing the green bean casserole on Thanksgiving? Full-fat or low fat-egg nog? Christmas ham or Christmas turkey?

In the grand scheme of things, these issues are not particularly important. But let’s be honest – many of our best holiday memories involve food. When I was a child, we were given a brown-paper grocery bag filled with oranges and nuts every year after the annual Christmas program. My siblings and I gave all the walnuts to my dad since he was the only one who could crack them open. The peanuts were in the shell, which meant we got bored after eating three or four of them. Nevertheless, receiving that bag, year after year, as I walked through the church basement, remains one of my most enduring Christmas memories.

Festival and Food in December

A great interfaith kids’ book where youngsters share food practices from their various faith traditions. – Photo: Food and Faith

A great interfaith kids’ book where youngsters share food practices from their various faith traditions. – Photo: Food and Faith

December is not just about Christmas, of course. The month is host to several holidays from a variety of traditions. We spruce up our Advent wreath, spin a dreidel to Hanukkah, sing at a winter Solstice concert, dive headlong into Christmas, and finish it all off with a Kwanzaa potluck. But religious dividing lines are never as clear as they first appear, and all these holidays are inter-related.

Solstice/Yule wins the which-came-first contest, since the first pagan party probably happened about 12,000 years ago. From that, eventually, came Christmas tree-decorating, mistletoe-hanging, caroling-singing, and gift-giving practices as well as the December 25 date.

Most recently, in the 1960s Maulana Karenga offered Kwanzaa as an African-American alternative to Christmas, although as time went on, it became more of an add-on than an alternative. And Hanukkah was popularized during my lifetime as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, even though the Temple story happened long before the birth of Jesus.

While these light-related holidays are historically intertwined, each makes a unique culinary contribution. That’s where kids come in. Cooking provides both teachers and caregivers a host of opportunities, especially when holiday dishes are added to the mix. You get to:

  • Enjoy a fun, productive activity together
  • Connect with the earth as our primary food source
  • Impart a deep appreciation for what we eat and how it is prepared
  • Teach about the history and sacred nature of food traditions
  • Model respect for others’ holiday rituals

In short, preparing festive foods with your kids can provide profound multifaith lessons. Take a moment to summon those rich, aromatic, vivid food memories of your childhood holiday experiences. Now take a moment to recognize that most children, regardless of faith (or no faith) tradition, hold their own analogous memories that are equally powerful. That’s where true understanding begins.

So what are some foods you can share with the kids in your care? Here are some typical, kid-friendly, go-to menu items for some of the season’s key holidays.


The Pagan/Neo-Pagan tradition is all about connecting with the Earth and her annual rhythms, so foods that are in season at this time of the year make a great contribution to your Solstice feast. Where I live, that means apples, cider, and oranges.

Healthy Sun Snack made from Colby cheese and yellow bell pepper sticks - Photo: VG

Healthy Sun Snack made from Colby cheese and yellow bell pepper sticks - Photo: VG

Since the winter Solstice is all about welcoming back the sun, try a few whimsical but healthy snacks that are shaped like a sun. An orange slice or round cut of cheese works great as the center. The rays can be made out of pineapple chunks, celery sticks, baby carrots, or pepper slices. Pair your snack with an easy sun craft project for a light-filled day.

Hanging evergreen boughs in the home as a reminder of life during the long winter months is an ancient Solstice tradition, making tree cookies a great option. Use a traditional Christmas tree cookie cutter, but instead of adding the typical decorations, simply use green frosting. Add dollops or squirts of whipped cream here and there to make “snow.” No need for garland and ornaments when nature, herself, is so wondrous to behold.

Yule Nuts


1 15-oz. can of Planter’s Mixed Nuts

2 egg whites

1 tbl. water

1 c. sugar

1 tbl. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

½ tsp. allspice

½ tsp.nutmeg

¼ tsp. ground cloves

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg whites and water. Add the can of mixed nuts and stir to coat them. In a medium bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Add the spice mix to the large bowl of mixed nuts. Stir to coat. Spread the nut mixture onto a baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes in a 300º oven, stirring every 10 minutes.

This is also the time of the year when animals finish storing food that will last them through the winter. My family loves these Yule Nuts I adapted from Winter Solstice/Yule Recipes in My Moonlit Path. The recipe contains great late fall/early winter spices that your kids might find a bit unusual.


Potato Pancakes – Photo: Kagor at Ukrainian Wikipedia

Potato Pancakes – Photo: Kagor at Ukrainian Wikipedia

Two events are celebrated at Hanukkah. Both center on the success of the Maccabee-led revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucids. The victory allowed the Jews to rededicate the Temple and to reinstitute Jewish life in the empire. The menorah, lit for the re-cleansing, required eight days of sacred oil, but only one small jug was found in the battle ruins. Miraculously, the oil lasted for all eight days.  

Celebrating Hanukkah with food means eating carbs. cooked in oil. Sufganiyot (jelly-filled fried donuts) are always a hit. Since I find the combination of hot oil and kids in the kitchen to be rather stressful, I always opt for some version of latkes (fried potato pancakes). Check out this recipes for Hanukkah posted by My Jewish Learning for all the links you need to find the perfect latke recipe for your family. And for an out-loud-funny (and beautiful) musical video about the history of latkes and how to make them, go here to hear the Maccabeats.

Texas Caviar


10 oz. black-eyed peas

1 onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

2 tbl. olive oil

2 tbs. apple cider vinegar

1½ tsp. sugar

1 tsp. oregano

¾ tsp. cumin

salt, pepper, garlic, hot sauce

Clean peas, place in pan, cover with about 1” of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until slightly crunchy. (You don’t want them to be mushy.) Drain and chill for 1 hr. in fridge.

Combine vinegar, sugar, oregano, and cumin in a bowl. Taste. If suitable, add olive oil.

In large salad bowl, combine chilled peas, chopped veggies, and sauce.

Add remaining ingredients (salt, pepper, garlic, and hot sauce) to taste, if desired.

Serve, as is, or use it as a dip for bagel chips, pita bread, or tortilla chips.


Kwanzaa, running from December 26 to January 1, is a week-long celebration of family and community. Instituted as a way for African-Americans to connect with their African heritage, the holiday is based on seven guiding principles, often named in Swahili. Practices include lighting candles, exchanging gifts, and decorating/crafting in the holiday colors of red, green, and black.

Kwanzaa food table is filled with soul-food favorites. Menu items often come from Africa, the Caribbean, or the Southern U.S. and include dishes like sweet potato casserole, beans and rice, collard greens, and fried plantains. I grew up in the Midwest and New England, but I spent many years in Birmingham, Alabama for graduate school. Southern friends shared their tradition of eating some version of black-eyed peas around New Year’s Eve to bring luck during the upcoming year. Since the culminating Kwanzaa feast, Karamu Ya Imani, falls on Dec. 31, I use it as an excuse to make my best black-eyed pea dish. I no longer remember who gave me the recipe for Texas Caviar, but even if doesn’t bring you great fortune, you will enjoy eating it while it lasts.

One of the best ways to teach kids about other faith traditions is through their holy days. And one of the best ways to teach about holy days is to focus on food. December is ripe with fun, simple, delicious opportunities. Experience the joy of the season as you create together, preparing delectable treats for the entire family. Even our family dog is getting into the culinary spirit of the holidays. I caught her eating packing peanuts out of one of those mail-order boxes the other day. I’m hoping they were the edible kind.