Our diets be damned, whenever December rolls around we brace ourselves for the influx of decadent Christmas foods. Between beloved spicy and sweet treats like gingerbread cookies to the despised fruitcake that's been passed down from generation to generation, it just isn't the holidays without these yuletide edibles. But where do these traditional Christmas treats (well, "treats") come from? How did they become a delicious part of the holidays? We decided to dig into the origins of classic Christmas foods and find out!
There's a legend connected to the candy cane which implies that the sweet treat was used to silence children during Christmas mass. The tale asserts that back in 1670 in Cologne, Germany, a choirmaster at the Cathedral of Cologne decided to get some white sugar sticks in order to pacify kids at church. The crook of the candy cane was allegedly added to remind children of the Shepard who visited baby Jesus.
Now, is there any validity to this story? While it's a lovely little tale, there's not a whole lot of historical evidence that really supports it. In any case, references to candy canes (with their stripes) crop up mostly around the mid-1800s, and the canes were mass-produced in the 20th century with priest Gregory Kellar patenting the candy cane machine.
From the tiny gingerbread people we use to stock stuffings to the ornate gingerbread homes we try (with potentially messy results) to create, the spicy cookie is an important part of Christmas. Now, the former dates back to 16th century Germany; the original houses were made with bold colors and gold leaf. In the 17th century, it was decreed that bakers could only make them during Christmas and Easter, which definitely contributed to its association with the holiday season. Gingerbread houses were likely popularized by the Brothers Grimm's fairytale of Hansel & Gretel during the 1800s.
Gingerbread men, by contrast, are tied to Queen Elizabeth I of England and her desire to impress palace guests. Whenever important visitors stopped by, she made sure to have gingerbread cookies made in their likeness! So the gingerbread cookies eventually came hand-in-hand with the house to become holiday mainstays.
In "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" there's an uproarious cry for figgy pudding, a treat that's decidedly divisive and, if we're all being honest, sort of ominous outside of England.
Yes, figgy pudding is another treat that comes from the United Kingdom. It originally popped up circa the 1500s and by Victorian-era England it clearly was in high demand during the season. It should be noted the figgy pudding is not, like one would think, made of fig. Instead, it's usually a plum or raisin-based pudding, which sounds like a somewhat precarious dessert, if we're being completely honest.
That isn't to be confused with the flaming stump we stare at for two hours while Bing Crosby plays in the background. Also referred to as "bûche de Noël," edible yule logs are made in the image of, well, yule logs. And yule logs (non-edible) have an extensive history that goes back to the Iron Age of Europe, back in the 11th century. It was common to celebrate the end of the winter solstice with a gigantic feast, and ending the night by burning a log covered in ivy, holly, or pinecones. The ashes of the log, were then scattered around, said to ward off evil.
As for the yule log cake, ingredients for the dessert were available as early as the 16th century; a typical yule log involves a rolled sponge cake with chocolate buttercream (scratched with a fork to look like bark) and powdered sugar to pass off as snow. But the dessert became particularly fashionable in Parisian bakeries during the 1800s. French bakers embellished the concept with their own artistic flair, and the rest is history.
Oh, fruitcake. Commonly dubbed the "Christmas Cake" in many Commonwealth countries, it's become the most frightful festive foods of all time. But why is that?
Well, the truest origins of Christmas fruitcakes are a little fuzzy. However fruitcakes have existed throughout history for centuries. The earliest variation goes back to Roman Times and was made of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and barley mash. We don't know what barely mash is, but it's very safe to say we don't want it on our dinner table.
Now, onto why the cake is so loathed (besides the barley thing). There's a common theory that the aggressive mass-production of cheap fruitcakes in mid-century America gave the food a bad rep. Fruitcakes are typically created with brandy or wine, which prevents it from molding and gives it sort of a grotesque longevity. According to The Joy of Cooking a fruitcake can stay "fresh" for 25 years when well-saturated with alcohol. All of that...sounds candidly disgusting, and comes with a low-key concern that your house guest is gifting you an untouched cake that has seen several Christmases.
And yet despite its bad reputation, the fruitcake continues to endure. Consider it bizarre Christmas magic.
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