Holiday Food Traditions are as Much about Connection as Eating

Dec 20, 2018

Almost all major holidays around the world revolve around eating special foods together.

And for many people, food and the act of preparing certain foods call up memories from bygone years


As Chris Wharton, a professor of nutrition at Arizona State University put it: “Food represents a sort of defining narrative about us” and connects us to our families our  culture.

“We convene around meals every single day as a matter of course,: he said. “ But also we do it certainly for special occasions. And so we celebrate with food for all of these reasons from birth through to death.”

On one level, he said, there’s the sense of security of having food at all -- and then there’s the pleasure we get in indulging in special foods around the holidays.

11-year-old Grace Harper records sound of her mom baking cookies as part of a youth reporting project between Valley Elementary School and WVPB
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“And doing these things, I think, amplifies key moments in our lives,” he said.

 

Denise Copelton, a professor of sociology at the College of Brockport in New York, said food also plays the role of establishing connection within a family unit. She said when she was growing up, her mother used to bake cookies around the holidays. Now, she carries on that tradition with her own children.

“It’s something that I can reconnect to the past...to that time when I was doing it with my mom, and my sister. Even though they’re not present with me when I’m baking with my daughters, it calls to mind and it forges this connection with the family of the past and the family that I currently have,” she said.

Part of the reason food is such an important part of holiday tradition is not just the moment of coming together to eat, but also what happens when you get there.

“You renew your sense of family, she said. “You share your activities of the day together. And it’s those things that we often do over a meal or through the sharing of food or the preparation of food that really helps define what family is as opposed to another group.”

Grace Harper is a fifth-grader from Cannelton, W.Va. She and other students at her school recently participated in a youth reporting project with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Her family, too, makes homemade cookies during the holidays.

11-year-old Grace Harper records sound of her mom baking cookies as part of a youth reporting project between Valley Elementary School and WVPB
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I feel like hanging out with family -- especially with your grandparents because you know they won’t be around for long -- is really special to me,” said Grace, adding that she plans to pass down the tradition to her own kids someday.

As a part of the youth reporting project, Grace also interviewed her parents. She asked them why they maintain holiday traditions.

“It’s important that we don’t lose what we have captured and what we have through generations of family,” said her dad Tim. “And if we just forget about it then they pass away and are forgotten”

 

Correction: January 22, 2019. 

An earlier version of this article misspelled Denise Copelton's last name as Copleton. 

 

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.