Since the dawn of history, sweet foods have been served for special occasions and as part of religious rituals. In ancient funerals, the dead were given a supply of honey to enjoy in the afterlife, since honey symbolized immortality. Ancient peoples even buried important leaders in honey. In many cultures, sweets-whether honey, sugar, or chocolate-were considered the food of the gods.Many rituals of life and nature are still celebrated with sweets. In Lebanon, for example, meghlie, or milk pudding, is served to visitors when a child is born. The Hopi Indians of Arizona mark the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) with a meal containing honey and flour. And in many cultures, cake is a cornerstone of weddings and birthdays.Throughout the world, people prepare special desserts for holidays and festivals. You could fill several cookbooks with recipes for desserts for Christmas, the major Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. These desserts range from sweet fruit breads-such as the pan de Navidad in Chile, three kings bread in Mexico, and the Julebrod in Norway-to dozens of types of cookies to Mexican fried pastries (bunelos) to Scandinavian rice pudding to special cakes such as the buche de Noel (yule log) in France.Desserts are also an important part of many Jewish holidays. At Rosh Hashanah, the high holy days that begin the Jewish New Year, the table is laid with symbolic foods, including new fruits of the season such as pomegranates, figs, persimmons, apples, and pears. Bowls of honey symbolize the wish for a sweet year. Delicious cookies filled with poppy seeds or fruit are served during Purim. This holiday celebrates the story of Queen Esther of Persia, who helped bring down the wicked Haman, who had planned to kill all Jews living in Persia. The pastries, called Haman’s pockets or Haman’s ears (hamantaschen), are shaped like Haman’s three-cornered hat.Many Hindu holidays would not be complete without a table full of different types of sweets. Desserts for Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) include kheer, a sweet rice pudding prepared with rice,milk, nuts, and spices; halva, a rich blend of butter, grated vegetables, chopped nuts, honey, and dried fruit; and thandai, a nutty, spicy milk shake. The Holi festival-celebrating the arrival of spring-features puran poli, sweet stuffed bread, and gujjia, deep-fried pastries filled with nuts or raisins.Ramadan is the most important holiday for followers of Islam. During this holy month, Muslims fast (neither eating nor drinking) from sunup to sundown and eat simple meals before dawn and after dark. A celebration called Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated with a lavish feast, complete with a variety of sweet dishes. In Lebanon pancakes stuffed with sugared nuts and drenched in sweet syrup are eaten at this time.Many festivals across the globe celebrate the changing seasons, the New Year, the harvest, or a particular food. In Sweden Midsummer Eve marks the summer solstice-the longest day of the year. At this magical time of year, the twilight lasts until eleven at night, and dawn breaks at 2:00 A.M. Families and friends gather to decorate a maypole with birch leaves and wildflowers. They dance, sing, and feast on pickled herring, new potatoes, and desserts made with strawberries, such as jorbgubbstarta, the Swedish version of strawberry shortcake.The strawberry is also the star of the Festival of Strawberries in Nemi, Italy, a town near Rome. Strawberries grow in abundance on the hillsides surrounding Nemi, and on a Sunday in June, townspeople parade around dressed as ancient strawberry pickers or even as the berries themselves. People eat the freshly picked berries plain or with cream and sugar.Harvest festivals for many different foods take place throughout the world. In the African countries of Ghana and Nigeria, for example, a yam festival is held around the beginning of August, as the first yam crops are harvested. Yams, which are similar to sweet potatoes, are a major part of the diet in many African countries. Besides being eaten as a main dish, they may be fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon for a sweet snack.In China special sweet cakes are prepared for the New Year festivities. The date of Chinese New Year changes each year because it falls on the first day of the lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. The New Year season is also called the Spring Festival. People decorate their homes with red paper and set off firecrackers. The season ends with a colorful Lantern Festival.The New Year is celebrated with many festive foods, including desserts. Chinese New Year dinner includes oranges, which traditionally symbolize good fortune.Many other worldwide holidays feature desserts. In Mexico people honor the dead during the Day of the Dead holiday. This is not a somber occasion but a festive time filled with flowers, candles, and special foods, including a sweet bread called pan de muertos (bread of the dead). A similar holiday in Italy is celebrated with “dead bone cookies”-crunchy cookies that resemble bones.Australians pay tribute to people who died in war on Anzac Day, April 25. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Anzac biscuits-crisp coconut cookies-were baked for ANZAC soldiers during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).In every corner of the world, people find pleasure in the sweet delights of desserts, from simple fruits to elaborate cakes and pastries.