Photos by Rita Maas

In every corner of the world, people distinguish the important moments of life by eating and drinking together. During these celebrations, foods do more than nourish; they symbolize a tapestry of traditions central to each culture's heritage. The end of the calendar year—dark midwinter in the northern hemisphere—is often marked with the lighting of candles and fires, accompanied by a special meal, perhaps the one time each year when extended families gather, share food, remember, and give thanks for the journey.

During Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, tables are ablaze with candles and loaded with dishes enriched with oil, particularly fritters and doughnuts, to commemorate the miraculous renewal of the oil in the temple lamps. At Christmas, the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth, blazing fires, flaming puddings, and roasted meats are enjoyed in a spirit of merriment that owes much to the saturnalia of Roman times; on Christmas Eve, Mediterranean Roman Catholics redress the balance with a simple, meatless meal known as the fasting supper.

The modern African-American festival of Kwanzaa, now celebrated by millions, expresses the deep-rooted desire to join together and honor a common ancestral heritage at the dawn of a new year with foods reminiscent of African culture. At No-Rooz, the ancient Persian festival celebrating renewal and rebirth at the time of spring planting, a copy of the Koran is placed on the table alongside the food, and the most senior person present recites from the sacred text.

Other ritual celebrations, secular or religious, are similarly marked by feasts and fellowship. But always, festive foods are rich and carefully prepared, often with children at hand to ensure that the next generation learns the traditions of its ancestors.

This year when you cook up your midwinter feast, give thanks. Nature's good things—harvest, birth, changing seasons, even a peaceful death—are rites of passage that can be honored with a wonderful celebratory meal.