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Release date: 12/28/2004.

You'll find this story and lots of these and other recipes in it, From AN EXALTATION OF SOUPS,
copyright © 2004
by Patricia Solley,
Published by Three Rivers Press.

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Soup to Celebrate Christmas on (mostly) 12/25/2000

(Holiday SoupSong 1: for December 25, 2000)

Two thousand years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem who was destined to change the history of the world…and the hearts and souls of millions of people across the world.

The story of Christmas is quickly told. "The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph…and said, ‘Hail, thou that art favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art though among women…thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest’" (Luke 1:26-32). St. Luke tells how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, she heavy with child, "and there she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." He tells how an angel announced the news to local shepherds, who immediately jumped up to see what it was all about. And, St. Matthew adds, 3 wise men traveled from the east to worship the baby, bearing gifts.

I’ve always liked the fact that Luke and Matthew and everyone else since then have made so much of this birth. They didn’t have to. Most other religions don’t dwell on births. And, certainly, other events in Christ’s life—his crucifixion and resurrection—are far more central to Christian doctrine and mysteries…and far more revelatory.

But there you are: They and we DO make much of it. We love it. We love the concept. We spiritually mill around that little manger, grinning from ear to ear, amazed at the miracle of babies in general and of Christ’s life in particular. We don’t much think about the passion to come. We don’t fast or tuck ourselves away in solitary prayer and reflection. Nope, it’s a community thing. Imagine: a serious holiday, anchored in a profound mystery, that absolutely requires unbridled smiling, generosity, and "good will towards men." Yes, Virginia, it’s okay to have fun.

So we go to church and festivals together. Sing carols together, even just walking down the street. Exchange Christmas cards. Give gifts to each other, in the spirit of the wise men and maybe going overboard. We party, eat and drink with abandon when we can, and we sit down to traditional meals on Christmas eve or Christmas day…and eat soup.

And what a variety! A sampling follows, by no means definitive. Of course the abundance of fish soups reflect the fact that the fish is an ancient symbol of Christ (for an excellent discussion of this symbol, go to

  • CAMBODIAN: Curry soup, celebrated with songs and dramas.
  • CATALONIA: Capon broth soup with giblets, meats, and shell pasta (Montse Knowlton notes in a recent article that this tradition is quite different than that in other parts of Spain).
  • CHILE: Sopa de Pescado, or fish soup.
  • CZECH REPUBLIC: Vánocní rybí polévka, or Christmas fish soup (served in homes at 6 pm on Christmas day and now traditionally doled out to the needy on the Old Town Square by Prague Mayor Jan Kasl on Christmas Eve).
  • GREECE: Avgolemono soup to break the fast at Christmas breakfast.
  • HUNGARY: Borleves, or wine soup. Also Halászlé, or fish soup, as a relic of the earlier church tradition of fasting for Advent.
  • IRELAND: Dessicated soup, a clarified beef consomme laced with Irish whiskey upon serving to start the Christmas dinner.
  • ITALY: Pretty regional, but Cappelletti in brodo in many places...and on the Isle of Capri, Minestra di Natale with chicken and escarole.
  • NEW ZEALAND: Toheroa chowder (made from a rare shellfish found in the black sands of the North and South island beaches).
  • NIGERIA: Codfish (stockfish) head soup.
  • POLAND: Mushroom soup with pasta (I’ve also heard of beet soup).
  • RUSSIA: Borscht.
  • SLOVAKIA: Cabbage and mushroom soup (soup is traditionally served to represent the often poor lives of Slovakians).
  • SPAIN: Ajoblanco, or almond soup.
  • SWEDEN: Potato soup served with fish
  • USA: Too diverse to have any fixed traditions outside of what was brought along with settlers from other countries. But in Louisiana, anyway, there’s Gumbo (, at least if "Trosclair’s" Cajun Night Before Christmas is to be believed: "’Twas de night before Christmas / An’ all t’ru de house / Dey don’t a t’ing pass / Not even a mouse. / De chirren been nezzle / Good snug on de flo’ / An’ Mama pass de pepper T’ru de crack on de do’. / Den Mama in de fireplace / Done roas’ up de ham / Stir up de gumbo / An’ make bake de yam."

Just because it’s unusual and delightful, let me particularly recommend the Hungarian wine soup as a superb start to any Christmas dinner. It’s elegant, nicely tart, warming, light and lightly spiced—just the perfect amount of headiness and festivity.

BORLEVES (for 4)
  • 3½ cups good quality dry white wine (Hungarian Hárslevelü is traditional)
  • ¾ cup water
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 4 cloves
  • 4 egg yolks

Pour 3 cups of the wine and the water into a saucepan with the sugar, cloves, and cinnamon and bring to a boil. While the soup is heating, beat the egg yolks with the remaining wine until creamy. When the soup is at a boil, dip a cup of it, little by little, into the egg yolk mixture, beating constantly so the egg yolks don’t curdle. Incorporate another cup of the hot liquid into the eggs, then beat the eggs into the remaining soup. Stir constantly while reheating and let the soup thicken a bit, then strain. Ladle into small elegant bowls, and serve immediately.

I hope you enjoy some of these soups, and I also hope you will write to correct or to contribute your own Christmas soup traditions. It’s a wonderful and touchingly human thing, this bonding over food at important times in our lives. To think that for two thousand years, in the most far flung lands, Christians of every sort—ardent and lax; rich and poor; Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox; restrained and evangelical; bound in snow and lapped by tropical waters—these have sat down over bowls of steaming soup at Christmastide for no other reason than to celebrate with their loved ones their happiness over that baby in the manger.

Best regards, Pat Solley