When you think of the holidays you can’t help but think of all the goodies that come with it: candies, cakes, chocolates, and confections. But where do these tasty treats come from? Here’s a brief history of some of our favorite, and maybe not-so-favorite traditional holiday sweets.
Fruitcake – The good, the bad, and the heavy
Despite the jokes about its heft and perpetuity, fruitcake endures as a holiday staple—like it or not. So where did this dense cake come from and why do we eat it at Christmastime?
Versions of the fruity cake have been around for centuries. The Italian panforte (literally, “strong bread”)—a dessert consisting of fruits and nuts and a lot of honey—was documented as being used as payment for the tithe to monks of Siena in 1205. Similarly, lebkuchen—Germany’s cross between spiced honey cake and gingerbread—hails from olden origins such as the ovens of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
The version we know today most likely began with the import of sugar from the Far East in the sixteenth century. It was then that Europeans learned that soaking fresh fruit in successively greater concentrations of sugar would preserve it, as well as intensify the color and flavor. Three centuries later, these sweetened jewels made it into cakes as we know them today—later, the fruit-filled cakes crossed the pond, where nuts were added to the mix.
So why do we only see fruitcake around the holidays? The story goes that because the cake is so sweet the church forbade people to eat it except for very special occasions, like weddings and Christmas.
Candy Canes – A crooked tale of a silent mass
What would the holidays be without that very merry candy crook that dons our trees and pleases kids of all ages every year? This centuries-old sweet delight has a funny little history that’s said to date back to 1670 in Koln, Germany. The story goes that a choirmaster who wanted to quiet restless children during the Christmas Eve mass asked a local candymaker to provide him with sweet sticks to occupy otherwise chatty little mouths. In order to justify the gift of these distractions, the choirmaster asked that the confections be shaped with a crook, much like those of the staffs carried by the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in his manger.
Some say this story isn’t true, citing historical errors and a lack of conclusive evidence. What is true, however, is that the first candy canes were white and didn’t have the peppermint flavor we know them to have today. These elements were added in the beginning of the twentieth century when, in 1901, Anchor Candy Company’s King Leo brand made its debut with the then-popular flavoring of peppermint. It wasn’t until 1919 that McCormack’s Famous Candy Company added the red stripe.
Gingerbread – And a Grimm beginning of the gingerbread house
From its humble beginnings as a mixture of breadcrumbs, honey, and ginger, gingerbread and the many shapes it comes in have been a part of year-round celebrations from Sweden to France, Italy to Turkey for centuries. The hard, spiced cookies were shaped like animals, swords, and hearts—as seen in German lebkuchen—even kings and queens, and they became a staple during medieval fairs and seasonal markets all over Europe. It’s said that Elizabeth I, queen of England, was the first to have the cookies shaped like visiting dignitaries and gold gilt in their honor.
Then, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, German gingerbread bakers created elaborately decorated houses like the one told of in the brothers Grimm story Hansel and Gretel. Displaying these sweet little abodes quickly became popular for holiday decoration, and the tradition was brought to the States by German immigrants to Pennsylvania, where it continues to be a sweet addition to holiday festivities.
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