Many countries and cultures have foods that serve as symbols. Wine and bread, for example, play key roles in many christian ceremonies. Beans are considered lucky on New Year's Day in the South, the Caribbean and parts of the Middle East. In ancient Rome grain symbolized good fortune and plenty. Many of these food based symbols come up during the Christmas season and have roots dating back to times when these short, cold days were spent inside with family looking forward to longer days and the spring to come.
The pretzel shape has a special significance - it is derived from a pagan calendar symbol to mark the winter solstice. The pagan marking consisted of a circle, which represented the sun's course and the dot in the center of the circle to represent the earth. When this shape is made from one piece of rolled dough, the dot in the center becomes a cross, thus making the pretzel shape we are all familiar with. Countries such as Denmark and Finland still have traditional pretzels to celebrate this time of year.
The yule log, or buche de noel is a jelly-roll cake that is frosted and decorated to look like a log - a yule log. This type of cake is popular in France (buche de noel), Italy (ceppo de natale), Lithuania (berzo saka - filled with prune jam, chocolate and walnuts), England (yule log - filed with apricot jam and almonds and covered with red currant jelly and almond paste icing) and Norway (julestamme - filled with strawberry or raspberry jam and covered with whipped cream or almond paste icing).
Shortbread, a classic Scottish treat, is a traditional Christmas and New Year's treat that descended from the oatmeal bannock that was served at pagan Yule celebrations. The bannock was a round cake with a circle in the center and ridges around the rim to symbolize the sun and its rays. It is considered unlucky to cut shortbread with a knife - it should be broken into pieces to avoid bad luck.