Heather Rockwood is a food science junior and Mustang Daily food columnist.

This week every Cal Poly students’ schedule is  full of exams, papers, group projects and last minute cram studying to secure final grades. In the midst of all the storm and drudgery of finals week, the hope of the December holiday season shines as brightly as a lighthouse to lead students safely to the celebrations which await on the restful shore we call the end of the quarter.

December brings with it celebrations originating from different countries, cultures, religions and personality types. No one particular in-season food is the star to all the many dishes which play significant roles in these celebrations, explore traditional dishes of some major holidays celebrated around the world.

For our first port of call we take anchor on the sacred shores of Israel — the Holy Land for all three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this land, the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah takes root. Beginning Dec. 11 this year, the celebration lasts eight days until Dec. 19. This holiday celebrates God’s provision and strength demonstrated through the miraculous oil used to light the Temple the dwelling place of the Torah. The oil was believed to only have been enough to last for two nights, but it remained burning brightly for eight days and nights. Today Jewish families light a new candle each night in remembrance of the oil, the strength and the provision of God.

After lighting the Menorah (candle holder), Jewish families relish in delicious foods cooked in the cherished oil that plays such a significant role in Hanukkah tradition. Some of the most popular dishes to make an appearance repeatedly throughout the celebration is latkes — a savory potato pancake fried in oil — and sufganiyots — jelly filled doughnuts.

Before Hanukkah gets too far underway, we set sail and make our way back to North America, but we don’t make port in the United States. Instead, just south of our own soil we toss our anchor in Mexico.

Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is celebrated Dec. 12 in honor of the coming of Virgin Guadalupe to the Mexican people. Tradition explains how Juan Diego, an Indian peasant, was visited by the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. She promised him she was his “Compassionate Mother” and became the Patron Saint of Mexico.

Thousands of Mexicans make a pilgrimage to Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City each year to pay homage. The streets are filled with festivals, flowers and food. Traditional foods eaten on this day include buñuelos and raspados. Buñuelos are fritters similar to doughnuts and can be topped with cinnamon, sugar or honey. Raspados are snow cones flavored with classic Mexican flavors such as leche (sweetened milk with cinnamon), chamoy (fruits and chili sauce) and picosito (lemon and chili powder).

Now we travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Sweden and surrounding countries (Norway, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, etc.) to light candles in honor of St. Lucia’s Day, celebrated Dec. 13.  This holiday honors St. Lucia, a brave young woman who secretly provided food and help to persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire. In order to carry as many supplies as possible, St. Lucia secured candles to a wreath she wore on her head for light. Today, young girls dress in all white with red sashes and hold a candle to pay respect to St. Lucia.

In the morning, children are busy at work preparing lussekatts, St. Lucia’s buns, which they offer to their parents in bed. These buns are an eloquent treat made with a decadent and rich spice — saffron. The small amount of saffron added to these buns provides a vibrant yellow color, and a unique flavor. Saffron by weight is more expensive than gold, but luckily it doesn’t take much of it to lend the depth of color and distinct metallic honey sweetness to the sweet lussekatts. After gobbling down a few of these treats and lighting a candle, we prepare for our next holiday feast.

Christmas, Dec. 25, is celebrated differently depending on which country you find yourself in. Today we will take a closer look at a French tradition that has found its way into many American hearts and hearths.

Bûche de Noël, commonly referred to as a yule log, is a long-held Christmas tradition. The actual yule log was a log burnt throughout the night of Christmas that was said to bring good luck for the coming year. However, if the log burnt completely before the night’s end it represented bad luck for the household. As time progressed, the French — in their typical culinary splendor — made the traditional yule log into a divine dessert.

This dessert was more than just a culinary experiment — it was created as a symbolic substitution which enabled those without chimneys to take part in the tradition. Today the cake is seen on the tables of holiday feasts.

A yule log is most commonly a sponge cake filled with buttercream and extravagantly decorated to perfectly resemble a wooden log. The cakes can be decorated to the fullest with berries, powdered sugar and even mushrooms made of meringue.

After the yule log has burnt out, Kwanzaa begins on Dec. 26 and lasts through New Year’s Day, Jan. 1. This is not a religious holiday, but a celebration of family, community and culture. It was created by Maulana Karenga to help African Americans embrace their African roots.

In Swahili, the word kwanzaa is translated “first fruits of the harvest” and many of the traditions of Kwanzaa have been borrowed from the traditions of harvest festivals practiced in Africa. Kamaru is the feast observed during this holiday. During Kamaru, the food displays African culinary fare and includes dishes such as collard greens, gumbo, okra and many fresh fruits and vegetables.

For our last port we jump ship to shores of Japan to end our year with Omisoka — the Japanese New Year celebration on Dec. 31. However, Omisoka is very different than the American dropping of the ball in Times Square. During the day Japanese families clean their homes to create a fresh slate for the year to come.

After cleaning, families gather to partake in the largest dinner of the year. At dinner toshikoshi-soba — long buckwheat noodles — are served. These long noodles represent good luck and a long healthy life. They are believed to help to guard a secure crossing from one year to the next. And remember — slurp with confidence. It is considered good etiquette to slurp one’s noodles in Japan.

December marks the end of fall quarter and the beginning of all kinds of celebration. It has been a challenging quarter and as you finish your last exam, get your mind, heart and stomach prepared for the blissful season of feasting and festivals which await you.

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