In some parts of Central and Eastern Europe such as Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, a traditional meatless 12-dishes Christmas Eve Supper is served on Christmas Eve before opening gifts. This is known as the "Holy Meal". The table is spread with a white cloth symbolic of the swaddling clothes the Child Jesus was wrapped in, and a large white candle stands in the center of the table symbolizing Christ the Light of the World. Next to it is a round loaf of bread symbolizing Christ Bread of Life. Hay is often displayed either on the table or as a decoration in the room, reminiscent of the manger in Bethlehem. The twelve dishes (which differ by nationality or region) symbolize the Twelve Apostles.
The Holy Meal was a common Eastern Orthodox tradition in the Russian Empire, but during the era of the Soviet Union it was greatly discouraged as a result of the official atheism of the former former regime. It is coming back in Russia and continues to be popular in Ukraine.
The main attribute of Holy Meal in Ukraine is kutia, a sweet grain pudding. The other typical dishes are borscht, Varenyky, a traditional Christmas compote called uzvar and dishes made of fish,phaseolus and cabbage.
In accordance with the Christmas traditions of the Serbs, their festive meal has a copious and diverse selection of foods, although it is prepared according to the rules of fasting. As well as a round, unleavened loaf of bread and salt, which are necessary, this meal may comprise roast fish, cooked beans, sauerkraut, noodles with ground walnuts, honey, and wine.
In Bulgaria, the meal consists of an odd number of lenten dishes in compliance with the rules of fasting. They are usually the traditional sarma, bob chorba (bean soup), fortune pita (pastry with a fortune in it), stuffed peppers, nuts.The meal is often accompanied with wine or Bulgaria's traditional alcoholic beverage rakia.
While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate the Christmas Eve meal with various meats, Italians and Sicilians celebrate the traditional Catholic "Feast of the Seven Fishes" which was historically served after a 24 hour fasting period. Although pre-Christmas fasting is not a popular custom still practiced, Italian-Americans still enjoy meatless Christmas Eve feast and attend the Midnight Mass.
In various cultures, a festive dinner is traditionally served for the family and close friends in attendance, when the first star (usually Sirius) arrives on the sky.
Families in some Slavic countries reserve a place for guests (alluding to Mary and Joseph looking for shelter in Bethlehem).