Children all over the United States will have a big decision to make on Christmas Eve: Would Santa Claus prefer a chocolate chip cookie for a snack or perhaps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
The American tradition of leaving a snack for Santa on Christmas Eve is said by some to date to the Great Depression, when parents wanted to teach their children the value of giving selflessly to others. However, it's also plausible that, in a country populated by immigrants from all over the world, our tradition is simply one brought over from the Old Country — or, more accurately, Old Countries.
Along with a bevy of far-flung food experts, Washington, D.C.'s local diplomatic community is a particularly good source of information about what Santa is eating around the world — and it would appear that Jolly Old St. Nick is quite well-fed long before he reaches our shores.
Kate Reuterswärd, press officer at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, D.C., has fond memories of leaving a bowl of rice porridge, called risgrynsgröt, outside the door of her family's home for the Jultomte, or Swedish Santa. "Unlike the American Santa, the Jultomte enters your house through the front door, not through the chimney, so that's why the porridge is left there," says Reuterswärd. "The rice porridge is thickened with milk and flavored with cinnamon and a little salt. Some families add almonds, butter, jam, or molasses, but the traditional version doesn't have to be sweetened."
For Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, the rice porridge was certainly a traditional offering, but her family always left a cheese and butter sandwich outside the door, along with a carrot for the reindeer. In the morning, she says, "The sandwich was always gone, and there would be a gnawed carrot stub left."
When passing through Italy, Babbo Natale (aka Santa Claus) gets a clementine from children — and some hay for his donkey, because reindeer are not always his chosen mode of transportation. But a few weeks earlier, on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, gets a clementine and a glass of wine, while leaving gifts for kids on St. Nicholas Day.
In fact, while milk may be the beverage of choice here in the U.S., Santa seems to imbibe more potent liquids before arriving in the lower 48 — and he probably does need a nonalcoholic alternative by then. British diplomat Andrew Overton notes that "British children will often leave out a mince pie and a nip of sherry to brace Father Christmas for the chill." In Ireland, things get jollier with a pint of Guinness (and that splash of whiskey that Mrs. Claus has ready when Santa gets home). And apparently the Norwegian Nisse — a precursor to the Julenisse, Norway's Santa — will cause a lot of trouble if a jug of beer isn't provided with his rice pudding on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas Eve drinking gets its start Down Under, on Santa's first stop.
"I think Australian customs are quite close to [America's]," says food historian Barbara Santich of the University of Adelaide, "except that it might be a bottle of beer or glass of sherry or wine instead of milk," perhaps accompanied by a bit of fruitcake, which is usually also laden with whiskey or rum.
Of course, it's summer in December south of the equator, so a cold beer hardly seems out of place. Nor does a bit of barbecue in South Africa, or fufu with egusi — a West African seafood and meat soup — in Nigeria.
Once Santa gets to South America a bit later in the evening, there's pan de pascua to look forward to, a traditional Chilean Christmas fruitcake made with dulce de leche. Food blogger Pilar Hernandez acknowledges that the word "pascua" can be confusing in the context of Christmas, with its reference to Easter and "pascal." "In Chile, Christmas is called Pascua, Santa Claus is El Viejo Pascuero and so on. Easter is Pascua also, but Pascua de Resurrección. Don't get lost in the name; this is a fruitcake that will change you for the better."
But Santa isn't greeted with snacks everywhere. In Iceland, he is the one who does the feeding. Christmas Eve is the night when the first of 13 – 13! — different Icelandic Santas arrive, over the course of 13 days, to bring apples, oranges or other treats. "Children leave their shoes in the window and hope to get something in their shoe, after behaving especially good prior to him arriving," says Gudbjorg Bjarnadottir Ozgun, consular affairs officer at the Embassy of Iceland.
Santa is probably grateful not to have to nibble snacks in Iceland after all the rice pudding he has already eaten throughout Scandinavia. In Germany, Switzerland and El Salvador, he'll have letters to read instead, filled with children's wishes and dreams. And in Latvia, both children and adults are required to recite a poem in front of the Christmas tree in order to earn a gift, according to Latvian diplomat Artūrs Saburovs — although Father Christmas might snag a piparkukas, a spicy holiday gingerbread cookie made with white pepper, before heading on to the next stop on his global excursion.
And as for those cookies and milk: Cookbook author CiCi Williamson, who spent 26 years as a food safety expert for the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, cautions against leaving that milk out for too long. "Milk left out all night could make Santa ill from a foodborne illness," she says. "Milk shouldn't be left out more than two hours. After that, bacteria double in numbers every 20 minutes."
Let's not slow Santa down with tummy trouble. Maybe a nice glass of water will do. And don't forget a bucket for those thirsty reindeer, too.