The Meal Family meals on special occasions are an important part of tradition, which in some ways can connect many generations together in a ritualistic way. Recipes a family passes down from generation to generation may continue to be prepared on a certain holiday, even though every other remnant of the ritual meal has changed in style as the years go by. In my family, this tradition holds true for our annual Christmas celebration when we all gather together for a festive party of games, merriment, and food. Although it seems as if each year it gets more difficult for all of the members of our large, extended family to attend, we all do the best we can to participate in this annual event. Held at my favorite aunt and uncle’s house each year, the major ritual meal consists of a potluck style dinner that is set up on a long, banquet table in their family/dining room area. It is a casual affair these days, with paper plates, cups, and utensils so that nobody has to worry about too much cleaning up afterwards. We all want to get started on the games after dinner.

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Food and Ingredients
Potluck meals at our Christmas celebration are beginning to be more casual and simple every year, which is mainly because the family is very busy with work and school activities. My aunt and uncle will usually provide a main casserole dish of some type, or in recent years two types of pizza, and some of my other relatives will each bring a salad dish, green beans with almonds, and various sweet baked rolls, cakes, and cookies. It seems to me that every year for as long as I can remember, there is one aunt who always brings an extra-large plate of Christmas sugar cookies with icing, sprinkled with red and green sparkly toppings that are very pretty. Although many of the traditions of food in the family have changed over the years, the Christmas cookies that we all eat throughout the evening while the games are going on is the one strong tradition that has continued.

Meaning & Participants

The meaning of the food
One of the main family recipes which has been included in our Christmas dinners for as long as I can remember is a fruit salad concoction that my grandmother calls ambrosia. I believe it is a recipe that has been around for several generations on her side of the family, who were all from Minnesota. Ambrosia is a sweet, delectable dish with coconut, sour cream and marshmallow mixed in with several types of fruit. We all enjoy this traditional dish to go along with the main meal of the evening. “Preparing a meal occurs within an elaborate set of social, economic, and cultural frameworks that determine when and with whom we eat, what and how much we eat, what we buy and where we go to buy it, and when and with what tools and techniques we prepare a meal” (Carrington, p. 259). All of these factors must be taken into consideration on the types of food we share together and its underlying meaning. The fact that the traditional types of food that are served at a potluck style dinner are becoming more casual in style—foods such as pizza and microwave-baked lasagnas that are easy to prepare and serve—actually is a cultural representation of American life in many families today. So the meaning of the food reflects certain sociocultural patterns where there has been a shift in the amount of time and energy which people are willing to spend in household duties. These include cooking and serving food as well as the cleaning up afterwards. In the potluck style of eating, each person can bring a favorite dish that has some special meaning to them personally, or try something new on the family which is usually well-accepted overall. It may be that cultural traditions are less valued than the concept of trying a new food dish that someone new in the family brings. This seems to be why it has dwindled down to only one aunt, who still brings the Christmas cookies, and the ambrosia fruit salad. We are a sociable group. We like to laugh a lot, watch humorous movies together, and generally have a good time by looking at the lighter side of life. On special occasions, there is not really anyone in the group who wants to spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking, however. Most of us prefer to enjoy our time together at the Christmas season by catching up on everyone’s activities and pursuits.

Participation and analysis of social structure within the family
The significance of having a potluck dinner event seems to show that the family group members each want to have an equal role in the cooking, serving, and cleaning at Christmas parties, a feature that is actually present during most all of our gatherings throughout the year. Since the Christmas party has been held at my aunt and uncle’s house for many years, their participation style seems to be an important part of the decision-making on how to serve and prepare the food. Issues of convenience such as using paper goods for food have changed the style of the parties, and the youngest children in the family who are so excited to go to a Christmas party love the fun decorations on the table and all around the house. For the host and hostess, the sharing of responsibilities may be an underlying issue as well. “Tasks such as planning and managing the sociability of family meals are also invisible” (De Vault p. 243) They both work full-time in rather demanding professional careers and are exceptionally busy during the holiday months between October and December, so no one even expects that they should do extra work in food preparation. These factors are present in the structural organization of family events: “participants use a number of rhetorical strategies to portray the organization of feeding in their households…these distinctions function to create a sense of egalitarianism” (Carrington, 2013, p. 187). The sense of egalitarianism is strongly shown by the fact that every year, fewer traditional aspects of the Christmas party in relation to food are present. Years ago, when my grandmother was in charge of food preparations, we would have much more elaborate, formal sit-down dinners. She would serve roast beef as the main meal, and all the trimmings that go along with a Christmas Eve dinner in a typical white Christian family. “Feasting as a form of celebration had been part of an earlier English tradition associated both with harvest festivals and thanksgiving days, suppressed but apparently not exterminated by the Puritan strictures” (Siskind, p. 46). However, in the current family structure where many relatives live far distances away, we no longer have the party exactly on Christmas Eve. It is more important for us in our close social relationships that as many as possible can attend, even if the gathering occurs between Christmas and New Year’s. This may be one reason for the adoption of a more casual food style. These factors show how the social structure of the family and its relationships to food develop together in a parallel way.

  • Carrington, C. (2013). Feeding lesbigay families. Food and Culture: A reader, 187-210.
  • DeVault, M. (1997). Conflict and deference. Food and culture: A reader, 2, 240-258.
  • Siskind, J. (2002). The invention of Thanksgiving: a ritual of American nationality. Food in the USA: A Reader, 41-58.