When December rolls around, those who celebrate Christmas (and sometimes those who don’t) inevitably break out the nog, bake gingerbread men, stock the home with candy canes and receive (or perhaps give) the unavoidable fruitcake.
Today, we finally examine the delicious traditions we so blindly — and happily! — follow, and get to the root of their origins.
OK, so obviously we need it to deal with crazy Aunt Susan or that uncle who, without fail, turns every conversation into a political one, but why the nog, specifically? Why not just wine? Not that we’re complaining...
Food historian and Babson College professor Frederick Douglass Opie explains on his blog that eggnog most likely evolved from British aristocracy. While the lower class couldn’t afford fresh milk and eggs, “the wealthy would at times drink their warm milk and egg beverage seasoned with pricey spices, such as ground nutmeg and cinnamon,” and add pricey liquors, such as brandy and sherry, to prevent spoilage.
The drink made its way to colonial America in the 18th century with a new twist: Colonists added rum for a cheaper alternative to the heavily taxed brandy or wine. During the American Revolution, rum wasn’t readily available because of reduced trade between North America and the Caribbean. This may have contributed to the fact that we now only drink it on special occasions.
Gingerbread has a long history, dating back to the year 992 in Europe. Smithsonian magazine says it may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean.
Elizabeth I is responsible for the first documented instance of people-shaped gingerbread cookies — or “biscuits,” as the queen herself would say. Supposedly she had a habit of presenting important guests with gingerbread cookies molded in their likeness.
In medieval Europe, gingerbread was molded and decorated to resemble flowers, birds, animals or even armor for festivals and fairs, according to Smithsonian magazine. Women would offer the cookies to their favorite knights at tournaments as a token of good luck, or “superstitiously ate a ‘gingerbread husband’ to improve their chances of landing the real thing.”
But why are these little cookie men with their gumdrop buttons associated with Christmas? No one knows for sure, but a few theories exist. Some Christians suggest they’re symbolic of Jesus and became a holiday tradition to honor the birth of the baby boy in Bethlehem. Others point to a children’s story — published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1875 — in which a gingerbread man comes to life, flees from various potential captors and eventually is eaten by a fox. (How’s that for a bedtime story?)
As for gingerbread houses, the Brothers Grimm and their grisly fairy tales may have been responsible for the popularity of the edible structures. FoodTimeline.org explains:
"The tradition of baking the sweetly decorated houses began in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their collection of German fairy tales in the early 1800s. Among the tales was the story of Hansel and Gretel, children left to starve in the forest, who came upon a house made of bread and sugar decorations. The hungry children feasted on its sweet shingles.
“After the fairy tale was published, German bakers began baking houses of lebkuchen — spicy cakes often containing ginger — and employed artists and craftsmen to decorate them. The houses became particularly popular during Christmas, a tradition that crossed the ocean with German immigrants. Pennsylvania, where many settled, remains a stronghold for the tradition.”
Ah, the dreaded fruitcake. You either love it or hate it — most feel the latter. Who is responsible for the endless fruitcake gifting (and re-gifting) that happens around the holidays?
Unfortunately, there’s no specific person to blame. The kind of fruitcake people eat today — the kind with candied fruit, nuts and spices — most likely began in the Middle Ages, when dried fruits and nuts were imported and cost a pretty penny. The price of the ingredients may be part of the reason the cake was typically saved for holidays.
The other reason could have been the amount of time and effort that went into making one. The “Oxford Companion to Food” explains:
“Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique.”
The true origin of the candy cane is shrouded in mystery, considering all of the theories surrounding it are undocumented. The most common story, however, brings us to a cathedral in Cologne, Germany, in the 1600s, when a German choirmaster was struggling to keep the fidgety kids quiet during the living Nativity. As folklore has it, he came up with a sweet solution: He gave the children white sticks of sugar curved like shepherds’ staffs in honor of the shepherds at the stable.
Some argue that it was curved on one end to resemble a “J” for Jesus. Whatever the symbolism, the curved candy gained popularity at living Nativities throughout Europe.
According to Christianity Today, the Christmas confection made its way to North America when in 1847 a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard put candy canes on his Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio. Eventually the tradition spread, and some modifications — i.e., red strips and peppermint flavoring — were made.