Brittney Greene and her family have been planning Christmas dinner since July. This year, it will involve a lot of cheese—raclette, fondue, and hopefully traditional Swiss pastries from a local Houston bakery. For the past 15 years, the family has celebrated Christmas in a decidedly non-traditional way: by learning about and celebrating another culture.
“We got tired of doing the same turkey dinner that we'd just had at Thanksgiving, and my family really enjoys history and learning about other cultures,” said Greene.
The process begins during summer. Greene’s dad—who came up with the original idea—will order history books about the chosen country. The family will start brainstorming recipes, authentic clothing and they’ll even try to find people around town or on the internet who have the same cultural background and might know the language.
“Last year we did Holland, and I connected with a lady who lived in Holland through one of my Facebook groups. I asked her if she could help translate a prayer we could say before dinner in Dutch,” said Greene. “She even recorded her voice very slowly so I could learn it. It took me about a month to memorize and learn the five-minute prayer from start to finish.”
The first country they celebrated was Mexico.
“My dad grew up on the border and we basically grew up with an appreciation for the food,” said Greene. “We started off pretty simple—we made food, looked up some music and did a little decorating. But ever since then, it’s kind of grown—we’ve delved deeper into the history and we try to develop an appreciation for each culture by learning a little of the language, trying to find as close to traditional clothing as possible, and we always find a movie that goes along with the culture.”
They typically source internationally-themed Christmas décor from World Market, Christmas stores in West Texas, or even a big Christmas store back in Alabama, where Greene used to live. They’ve developed a tradition of trying to find a nutcracker that goes with the theme every year, and they’ll often look online at Etsy or other sites for authentic clothing. Or, in the case of the Scotland Christmas, her dad handmade kilts for himself and Greene’s husband.
The menus from some years are definitely more memorable from others.
“Greece, Scotland and Jamaica were my three standouts,” said Greene. “Scotland is where angus beef comes from, so we took great advantage of that and made huge angus steaks and potato leek soup, which was when I discovered how delicious leeks are.”
Greene is an avid home cook and once rose to the top 100 candidates during season 6 of Masterchef. For Greece, she challenged herself to make baklava entirely from scratch, including the phyllo dough. She also made her favorite Greek dessert, galaktoboureko, a vanilla custard encased in phyllo (for those curious to try it, Opa Greek Tavern is the only place in town she’s found that serves it).
Menus are typically inspired by cookbooks or dishes they’ve seen or tasted—their Jamaican feast was inspired by a cruise Greene and her husband took to Jamaica. Greene couldn’t stop talking about the food once they returned, so that year’s feast consisted of authentic jerk chicken, fried plantains, chicken noodle soup spiced with a Jamaican spice pack from H-E-B, pork and pineapple kebabs, callaloo (a type of Jamaican collard green that can be found canned in the international section of HEB) and bammy, a traditional flatbread made with coconut milk and cassava root. To this day, jerk chicken remains in the family’s cooking repertoire—as does the lamb her father made for an Australia-themed Christmas and the gyros from the Greece Christmas.
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“We definitely have more of an international flair to our menus,” said Greene. “I have a 4 year old and 15 month old and my 4 year old loves it. Since last year, he started realizing what we’re doing and finds it fun. I’m lucky in that my children are like little baby foodies—they love different kinds of food.”
The most recent tradition? Starting five years ago, Greene began looking for cookie cutters that matches each year’s theme. Every year, she ties recipe cards to the cutters as a memento for all the family members. Her goal is to one day have a Christmas tree dedicated to all the cultures they've celebrated with the cookie cutters as ornaments on the tree.
Although Greene is still shopping for a vintage reproduction dress with the Swiss Alps on it for this year’s Swiss Christmas, her mind is already on next year’s theme—Brazil. (And then South Africa the next year, inspired by her favorite restaurant, Peli Peli.)
“I hope this inspires other people to learn about other cultures and appreciate the world around them,” said Greene. “Even if you can’t afford to travel, you can still travel around the world in your own home. It’s opened a lot of doors to meeting new people, opened our eyes to many new cultures, and widened our palate.”