The Christmas Salmon
Mature salmon can be pretty colorful during spawning. Chums are also called “calico” because they have mottled patterns in purples, greens and yellows. Kings or Chinooks become a rich reddish brown to maroon. The sides of coho males turn almost fire engine red. But, in my view, the most colorful and dramatic of spawning salmon are the sockeye; bright green and intense red over the entire body, on both males and females.
They make me think of Christmas.
Some might argue that the color of Christmas is white. I grew up in the Midwest where we expected (and usually got) a “white” Christmas. Decorations and marketing in the United States often emphasizes holiday whiteness: snowmen, snowflakes and wintery scenes. However, in much of the rest of the world, snow is never even a possibility. There, the colors of the season have come to be “Santa” red and “Christmas Tree” green. Why is this?
Most of us quite naturally think that red derives from Santa’s outfit, and green from evergreen trees. While true to a certain extent, this is not entirely the case. These colors go back much further, to before there were even Christians.
Today’s red and green winter holiday colors are generally attributed to the pre-Christian Celts, those people who occupied England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the coast of Brittany in France. The global reach of this color combo comes largely from the much later British and their empire which touched the far reaches of the earth.
The land of the Celts is not a snowy place, it enjoys a maritime climate tempered by the warmish ocean current known as the Gulf Stream. It was a forested land of oaks and beeches and other deciduous trees. Like much of the northern European landscape in winter, it could appear pretty bare. However, the bright red berries and shiny evergreen leaves of native holly trees stood out. They suggested the continuance of life during the bleak winter months. Hollies thus became an important contribution to festive decorations during early Celtic wintery celebrations, especially solstice. As is so often the case, such customs were adopted by later cultures and belief systems, first, Christians in their churches, and later Victorians in their cards and decorations.
It was American advertising and marketing though which firmly established the red-green holiday color combo. In the early 1900’s, Coca Cola ads featured a jolly grandfatherly man with rosy cheeks and a thick white beard dressed in the soft drink brand’s signature red, with green accents (created by artist Haddon Sundblom). The ads were so successful and popular (variations repeated year after year) that this became the default image of Santa, and red and green became the color to market most everything during the Christmas and wintery holiday season.
Back to the Christmas salmon.
The holiday season is rich in taste traditions as well as prescribed color schemes. Today, thanks to the availability of fresh and flash frozen wild salmon (and the now ever present farmed knock-off), more and more people are including them in their Christmas dinners, sometimes as the centerpiece or more often as an additional option to the familiar and preferred roast beef or ham or turkey.
Were salmon ever the main meat in Christmas dinners?
Fish are still at the center of some European holiday traditions, though it is carp rather than salmon. I experienced this first hand the winter that I spent Christmas in Prague with my daughter and her partner at the time. Prague is a river town, built along the banks of the Vltava. Like most northern European rivers, it had runs of Atlantic salmon historically, though overfishing and industrialization have made wild salmon essentially extinct. The Vltava does support a variety of freshwater fish; pike, perch, chub and salmon relatives such as brown trout and grayling. But the clear king of these is the carp, a languid bottom feeding omnivore that can get to be nearly 100 pounds (most are 5 to 30 pounds). Carp can be controversial. They are the national symbol of Bohemia, raised for over 500 years in fish ponds in the region, the most common farmed fish in the world. At the same time they have been so widely introduced in virtually every country in the world that they are often seen as pests and undesirable invasive species, often out competing native fish.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I began to notice fresh carp being sold along the streets and in markets. They were in buckets or some other kind of container, curiously being sold alive. I learned that people buy their Christmas dinner fish early so as to be sure that they will have one, take it home, and quite often keep in in their bath tub til Christmas Eve, when it is killed and prepared for the big meal. It should be noted that in many parts of the world, it is the Christmas Eve dinner that is at the center of the holiday celebrations, not the one on Christmas day.
Wishing to experience a bit of local culture, I bought one of these big fish (maybe five to seven pounds) and took it home where it lived in the bathtub, seemingly satisfied with its circumstances, not smelling or creating any problems (though severely limiting the bathing situation). As it came closer to Christmas day, we talked more and more about how we might kill and prepare this formidable living creature. We did not give it a name (that surely would come if it had been with us longer), but it had become a presence in our lives.
On Christmas Eve, we decided that we just couldn’t go ahead with eating it. Early the next morning, we carried it down to the river and released it. To our surprise, we were not alone. There were a few others doing the same thing. I was somewhat embarrassed by my lack of nerve and shunning an accepted local cultural tradition, but releasing it rather than eating it made all of us feel better, maybe even a bit self-righteous. The truth was that we were all unskilled at killing creatures to eat and I couldn’t imagine what to do with all the bones and guts and, most of all, the large head with those sad, accusing eyes. The locals would make a delicious soup out of the head, something I learned later.
The Christmas carp continues to be a tradition in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. These are all heavily “eat meat daily” cultures, so it is a bit of a surprise that this river fish is chosen for their Christmas dinner. The custom apparently goes back to the Middle Ages where Catholics were required to “fast” during specific seasons, Advent, the time right before Christmas being one. Fasting meant not eating meat. Fish was the accepted alternative for Christmas Eve dinner, the last day of Advent. Celebrations, including gift giving were most common on the eve of Christmas rather than on the following day, where things were more relaxed and less structured. A Polish tradition (and in many other European countries) is for Santa to visit and distribute gifts, especially those for the children, on Christmas Eve.
I later learned that most Czechs, Poles and Slovaks no longer give their bathtub over to a fish for a few days before Christmas (although there are still quite a few purists who adhere to the live fish tradition, and will likely continue to do so for some time). People now buy their fresh fish gutted and cleaned, or even frozen. And, they do not get them from the river. Carp have been raised in fish ponds throughout the region for over 500 years. Indeed, fish farming in the region is a highly perfected business. Thus, they are readily available, apparently tasty (I would not know) and affordable (much cheaper than the usual alternatives: duck, goose or turkey). Our fish was likely raised in a fish pond, not the Vltava River, and was probably quite surprised when it found itself in the unfamiliar (and less than pristine) river. I like to think it is still alive there, some twenty-five years later, getting bigger and bigger, maybe living to be a hundred or more, which is possible for a carp.
People are beginning to substitute other fish for carp, including salmon (farm raised, probably from nearby Norway or Scotland) since it is now always available, affordable, easy to prepare, and tasty. After all, carp is a fatty, very bony bottom dwelling fish which many find challenging to prepare and eat. It is commonly breaded and fried or put into soups, not eaten in bone-free fillets like salmon.
Other seafoods did often contribute to holiday dinners. Sea turtles for example were sometimes eaten in places such as the Caribbean, where the dinner items promoted by Europeans (especially “roas beef”) were not readily available or affordable. Norwegians are known for their lutefisk, a dried and salted cod or other whitefish, pickled in lye. In Finland, baked ham is the traditional Christmas dinner, but it is preceded by a fish-centered array of cold-cuts such as smoked salmon, pickled herring, fish roe, gravlax and lutefisk. And, further to the south, Italians, especially Sicilians, celebrate what is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa Dei Sette Pesci, or, more simply, La Vigilia) on Christmas Eve. While each family has its own specific traditional dishes, they are likely to include salt cod, clams, octopus, anchovies, sardines, and, if you’re fortunate, lobster.
I can only conclude that historically salmon never played a central part of a traditional Christmas dinner. Until quite recently it was available mostly in cans or in a salted or dried form, not really competitive with a big turkey, ham or beef roast in the center of a generously and beautifully set out spread of supporting foods. If it was present, it would be a side dish of some kind.
But, this may be changing. Fresh or “fresh frozen” salmon filets, either farmed or wild caught is now readily available during the holiday season. As more and more people become aware and concerned about the food they eat, salmon seems, to many, a good choice. So often, large family dinners feature more than one “meat” choice, reflecting the greater diversity of lifestyles and food preferences now so common.
Here at Rocky Brook where I live, we don’t get sockeye (mainly because there are no large lakes up the Dosewallips River and Rocky Brook creek). We do observe late runs, with spawning in December into January, but it is coho (also called silver salmon) or chum. And of course, once they head upriver, they are protected (and begin to decline in quality).
So, in my imagination, a Christmas salmon is a bright red and green spawning sockeye.
In my backyard it is a bright red coho.
In my stomach it will definitely be wild and fresh or flash frozen to be almost as good as fresh.
Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Use the comments form below to share your experiences with salmon as part of your Christmas or winter holiday eating experiences. And go the blog “What Is The Best Tasting Salmon” for some perspective on that question (and another chance to offer your opinion).
All illustrations by Dennis Lloyd Kuklok (copyright, 2021)