10 Weird-but-true Food Facts

Christmas Culinary Curiosities Killed the Cat
In Italy, nothing says Christmas like a slice of panettone. © Luca Zanon/XianPix/Corbis

In the U.S., Christmas is associated with a sort of quid pro quo: People who celebrate Christmas leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus, and he leaves edible treats in their stockings. But other holiday traditions around the world incorporate food as well.

Take some of Europe's historical yuletide traditions. On Dec. 5 in Austria, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, good children used to receive candy in their shoes, while naughty ones got coal ... or potatoes. In Bavaria, farmers once encouraged a bountiful harvest by asking their fruit trees on a luncheon date. If the arboreal invitees didn't show, the farmers brought lunch to them -- or, rather, to the spirits that they believed dwelled inside them. On New Year's Eve, Spaniards have tried to court good luck (or a Heimlich) by gobbling down a dozen grapes while the clock struck midnight. In Sweden, a white-clad girl with candles in her hair would wake her family on Christmas with special wheat cakes called lussekatter, in memory of St. Lucia [source: Reuters].

Yuletide can be a tough time for cats in Europe. Icelanders bedecked their family felines in bows lest they be mistaken for the shape-shifting Christmas Cat, which reputedly gobbled up children who received only toys for Christmas [source: Reuters]. But they had it better than some cats in Switzerland, where a small number of diehards still eat the domestic variety for their Christmas meals [source: BBC].