Gifting a meaningful meal: our Christmas tradition

This year, we are planning a Middle East-themed Christmas. — Heather Wolfe

Today marks the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest night of the year. The solstice falls during the Advent season when we wait with eager anticipation for the Light of the world, Jesus, to be birthed. Joyous celebration of this incarnation will arrive in just a few days on Christmas. For many Christians around the world, that means gathering with family and friends because of our faith to feast on food and fellowship together. 

When I got married, we as a couple talked together about what we wanted the holiday to be. An unusual and meaningful tradition has emerged. On Christmas, both sides of our family come to our home and, instead of exchanging gifts, we give the gift of a sharing in a themed meal that emerges from the year as it unfolded.

The year I published Sustainable Kitchen, we had a “cookbook Christmas” where all recipes served were from the book. The year we read the entire Little House on the Prairie series, we had a “Little House on the Prairie” Christmas, which included wearing bonnets and giving kids stockings stuffed with shiny tin cups, pennies, peppermint sticks and a heart-shaped cake. We’ve had a zero-waste Christmas, an Indigenous Christmas, a locavore Christmas, a Lunar New Year Christmas, a stuffed Christmas (I was pregnant for that one), and the list goes on. No matter the theme, we always serve a gingerbread cake with candles, and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

This year’s theme emerged early in 2023 as we got to know some of our Jewish friends more closely. We thought it would be meaningful to celebrate Hanukkah, as Jesus being Jewish would’ve celebrated that festival, held at a similar time of year. With the blessing of our Jewish friends, we began to brainstorm around hosting a Hanukkah-themed Christmas. When the war between Hamas and Israel broke out, our hearts broke. As Mennonites, people committed to peace, we desired to expand our holiday celebration to include Palestinian Christmas traditions, recognizing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (current Palestinian territory). 

In putting together the menu, I’ve been poring over both Jewish and Palestinian cookbooks, interlibrary borrowing every title I can get my hands on, as well as researching traditional holiday foods and customs of Jews and Palestinians. It has been a joy to learn more about Middle Eastern cuisine and discover their commonly used flavors and ingredients (which I rarely use) such as pine nuts, figs, apricots, pomegranate, rose water, orange blossom water, za’atar and sumac. 

When I shared a draft of my menu to get input from a Jewish friend, I was surprised that many of the recipes I’d found from Palestinian sources were responded to with recognition and fondness: “Oh yes, we would have that often growing up.” I was even more surprised by the quiet acknowledgment that followed: “Well, we are really all one people.” 

What a powerful agent of peace food can be! Food brings us to the table, inviting us to sit down with each other despite our differences. Sharing of food is part of our human story and something Jesus commanded — breaking bread together.

Our food sharing of a Middle Eastern feast this Christmas is leading us to a greater appreciation and understanding of both our Jewish and Palestinian neighbors in the family of Abraham in which our faith is rooted. Hope, peace, joy and love will all be wrapped up in the meal, and everyone is invited to the table.

Sahlab (Middle Eastern warm winter beverage)

Sahlab is a Middle Eastern warm milk beverage. — Heather Wolfe

This milk pudding drink is a popular winter beverage in the Middle East, enjoyed across the region where Jesus’ life and ministry unfolded, including both Israel and Palestinian territory. My Vermont version uses maple syrup to sweeten and vanilla for flavoring. 

Serves 1 


  • 1 cup milk (any variety, dairy or non-dairy)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (or any variety of sweetener)
  • ¼ teaspoon flavoring such as vanilla, rose water or orange blossom water
  • Optional garnishes: crushed pistachios, shredded coconut, ground cinnamon


  1. In a small saucepan whisk milk, cornstarch and sweetener together.
  2. Bring to a slow boil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Simmer 2-3 minutes until it becomes creamy and starts to thicken.
  3. Turn off heat and whisk in the flavoring of your choice.

Pour into a small drinking glass or mug. Top with garnishes. Enjoy warm. 

You can also enjoy it cold. Refrigeration will thicken it into a pudding consistency.

Heather Wolfe

Heather Wolfe is deeply rooted in Vermont, USA, is in the Mennonite faith tradition and is part of a family Read More

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