Festive traditions and how to stay healthy
By Jake Greer, Consultant at 42T
As we approach the end of the Roman calendar year, it’s a time for festivals and celebrations around the world. Even festivals you are familiar with might be celebrated very differently in different places and cultures.
In the spirit of seasonal cheer and good will to all, let’s have a look at just a few of these traditions. Maybe you will be inspired to explore more traditions and travel to experience them for yourself.
While these celebratory traditions are usually fun, they are not all formed with health and wellbeing in mind. Winter festivities are often celebrated with an overindulgence of food but what might be the health impact in celebrating these traditions?
The 42T team has been exploring some of these traditions and are here to provide some advice when it comes to keeping safe this festive period.
Le Réveillon – de Noël, France
Le Réveillon – de Noël is the French traditional family meal eaten late on Christmas eve to welcome the arrival of Father Christmas. The meal is traditionally spread out over a long period of time and has many courses and key foods including:
- Pâtés & Foie gras
- Smoked salmon & anchovies
- Shellfish, especially oysters and scallops
- Normally some type of fowl, this could be turkey, chicken, goose, duck, quail, guinea fowl. Some areas have ham or rabbit instead. Sometimes roasted, sometimes in a stew or pie with rich sauces.
- Cheese platter
- Bûche de Noël, a chocolate cake similar to a Swiss roll
While this sounds delicious to many, those with gout may panic at the thought of this meal. Offal; oily fish; shellfish; game meats; turkey; ham; and meat extracts/ gravy can all trigger gout flair ups. All these foods contain a higher level of purine, which those with gout should avoid to keep the levels of uric acid in their blood low.
If you don’t have any issues with gout and want to incorporate delicious and nutritious seafood platters into your Christmas celebrations, then be careful of giving your family food poisoning. This is normally less risky in regions with shellfish as a common part of the diet where everyone knows how to source and prepare it.
Make sure your shellfish is fresh. Many are sold live and should be discarded if they are dead before cooking/preparing if they are to be eaten raw like oyster. There are also specific checks and cleaning techniques used in shellfish preparation to reduce the risks.
Even though there are risks associated with shellfish, eating shellfish is a great source of omega-3 which can be hard to get naturally. This and other nutrients found in shellfish can help alleviate inflammation and joint pain caused by arthritis (which gout is a form of); prevent osteoporosis; protect against aging skin; reduce heart disease; and support the immune system.
Christmas in Japan
A Christmas food tradition in Japan is the consumption of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC has famously been eaten as part of the Christmas Day meal since the idea came to Takeshi Okawara, the manager of KFC’s first Japanese restaurant, shortly after it opened in 1970.
The idea apparently came to Okawara when he heard foreigners complaining in his store about missing Christmas Turkey. He thought fried chicken could be a good substitute, leading to the creation of the Christmas Party Barrell. The demand for KFC is so high, that orders are often placed up to six weeks in advance!
If you are eating KFC this Christmas, remember that with all fried foods you should enjoy them in moderation. Over consumption can lead to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
One study even found that women who consumed at least one portion of fried food per week, had a 48% increased risk of heart failure, than those who only consumed 1 – 3 servings per month.
If you visit Japan this time of year, you will notice a lot of traditions associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas. Decorations, brightly coloured lights, presents, and festive colours flood the streets. But did you know that December 24th is actually the most romantic day of the year in Japan? Especially popular with young couples. Stores sell romantic Christmas gifts, and dinners are booked at expensive restaurants to celebrate.
Although often a taboo subject, sexual health and wellbeing is incredibly important so its good advice to keep safe!
New Year's Eve, Germany
by Sarah Knight
New Year celebrations are full of peculiar traditions in many countries. In Germany, and some nearby countries, lead pouring is a fun New Year's tradition and might help tell what’s in store for next year.
Bleigiessen traditionally involves heating a spoon above a candle and adding a small piece of lead. When the molten lead is poured into cold water, it hardens into abstract shapes that are said to predict the future.
Of course, lead poisoning can cause serious health problems. The WHO estimates that lead exposure accounts for 21.7 million years lost to disability and death (disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs) worldwide.
Usually, it's small amounts of lead consumed over time that build up in tissue and cause health problems including high blood pressure and kidney damage. Young children are particularly vulnerable – lead can affect brain development and cause immunotoxicity.
Thankfully, modern Bleigiessen kits usually contain tin or wax instead of lead. Just as much predictive power, and much safer. Watch out for burns though!
New Year's Eve, Spain
By contrast, in Spain when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, the Spanish start the year by eating 12 grapes - one with each of the clock chimes.
Successfully eating the grapes is meant to bring good luck to all 12 months of the year, but it's not always an easy feat. Seeing your friends and family attempting (and failing) to eat the grapes can make it difficult to keep a straight face, but it's important to remember the choking risks that come with this tradition. This is particularly the case with children.
If an adult is choking, first aid procedures as described by the NHS should be followed and in the event of any complications they should be taken to A&E. Make sure you are aware of the differences in first aid required for children.
Several things can be done to reduce choking risks, such as cutting the grapes in half and removing the seeds. These are essential for children, who should also be under adult supervision. More often than not people start laughing and don't manage to eat all the grapes, so try your best but don't put yourself at risk!
While some traditions are over in a matter of minutes, some last for days. Kwanzaa is an African-American festival that lasts seven days (26th December – 1st January) to reflect the seven Kwanzaa principles (Nguzo Saba).
The celebration was created in 1966 to achieve a sense of unity within African-American communities by reacquainting them with their ancestral culture. Harvest festivals are commonly celebrated in Africa to give thanks for community and resource - Kwanzaa mixes several traditions together.
Seven symbols are laid out during this time:
- Kinara: The Candleholder
- Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles
- Mkeka: The Mat
- Kikombe cha Umoja: The Unity Cup
- Muhindi: The Corn
- Mazao: The Crops
- Zawadi: Gifts
Of course, the event wouldn’t be African if celebrations did not include music, dancing, poetry, and feasting!
The beauty of dance is that it's both enjoyable and great for physical and mental health. Even at moderate intensity, a study showed African dancing caused significant weight loss in African American older adults.
Also, African drumming has a range of health benefits. Studies have shown that drumming can increase well-being, and for certain demographics reduce stress anxiety index scores and even decrease systolic blood pressure. On a neurological level, studies have found that drumming causes more efficient motor processing as the fibres that connect the brain hemispheres are thicker, allowing faster information exchange. This study was completed with professional drummers, but we all have to start somewhere!
Crucially, these benefits are applicable for those with neurological health conditions such as autism. A 2022 study suggested that drumming ‘reduces hyperactivity and attentional difficulties and increases functional connectivity in brain regions responsible for inhibitory control, action-outcome monitoring, and self-regulation.’
The final celebration day features a feast, Karamu, and while food is an integral part of the celebration, African-Americans experience a high prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure; many of these conditions exacerbated by diet.
So, how can we take a delicious dish and make it healthier without abandoning tradition?
By making it MORE traditional!
Traditional African diets contain foods that are both nutritious and mouthwatering - yams, nuts, akee, cassava, greens, sweet potatoes, okra, and corn. Healthy food swaps could include replacing processed meats with lean meats or fish-based dishes such as Nigerian Abacha, Ugba or Angolan fish Calulu. But often, the food preparation method causes problems. Boiling yam and roasting plantain instead of frying or using different oils like sunflower or rapeseed; salt and saturated fats are the main culprits that should be reduced.
St Lucia Day, Sweden
Along with Kwanzaa, there are many traditional activities to celebrate that aren’t (completely) food based. That doesn’t mean they can’t also have a big health impact.
Another festival that involves a lot of singing, combined with some food, is St Lucia Day in Sweden.
St Lucia Day is on the 13th of December and in Sweden it is tradition to hold a candlelit procession to celebrate. Girls and boys, clad in white full-length gowns and red sashes, sing carols together. Singing has been found to be excellent for health and wellbeing - improving breathing, speech and posture, circulation and even reducing pain levels.
The procession is led by Lucia wearing a crown wreath of candles representing light in the darkness of winter. As may be obvious, there is a serious risk of burns from the placement of candles of the head of a child – thankfully, today many Lucia’s use fake or electric alternatives.
During the celebrations, Swedes eat delicious saffron buns called Lussekatter and drink mulled wine (glögg) or coffee. The high sugar and fat content of the buns can contribute to a high risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. However, this could be balanced by the wine which (in moderation) has positive links to heart disease and diabetes.
Christmas in Australia
While many northern hemisphere traditions include aspects representing light and the hope for it’s return through the darkness of winter, December is the first month of Summer in the southern hemisphere.
Temperatures are in the high 20s and many Australians celebrate Christmas day with a barbeque at the beach.
Along with the sunny weather comes the risks of sun exposure. December has one of the highest UV indexes, with average maximums of 12 in Sydney. This is classed as very high, with skin protection needed for all skin tones. Sun exposure should be taken very seriously, with sunburn, just once every two years, can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.
Ways to protect yourself include avoiding the sun at the middle of the days when the sun's rays are the strongest, covering up with loose cotton clothing, and topping up with sunscreen regularly, especially remembering to reapply after a dip in the sea.
These are just a tiny selection of the many creative ways we all celebrate this time of year.
Some traditions may not be great for our health, but it’s a time of celebration, so when done in moderation, you should be ok.
We hope you are happy, safe and well throughout this festive period.
If you would like to find out more please contact Jake:
Jake is a Design Engineer with strong mechanical design skills, experienced at developing ideas from initial concept. While at 42T she has worked on microfluidic systems with an emphasis on ease of use and modularity. Her skills include innovative concept generation, detail design/CAD, prototype build and testing.
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