The origins of 10 Christmas culinary traditions

Published Dec. 17, 2013

Eggnog comes from England. • Candy canes got their start in Germany. • Fruitcake can be blamed on the ancient Romans. • And the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes? Its roots are in Italy but it just might be an American immigrant invention. • Iconic holiday foods made famous by commercial endeavors or song — thank Mel Torme for immortalizing "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" — signal the season more than those Black Friday sales. They are in our conscience fleetingly, disappearing by January and unwrapped next December as lovingly as a package from a dear friend. • Today, we gather 10 seasonal favorites, telling, according to our research, the most popular legend behind each. And as often is the case with stories passed down from generation to generation, the tales can get a little murky.

the candy cane

If you have ever tried to quiet a child in a place of worship, you'll appreciate the story of the German choirmaster at a Cologne cathedral. It was in 1670 that the ingenious choirmaster had small sugar sticks bent into the shape of shepherds' crooks to distract the kids during a living creche ceremony. The candy cane was born.

It wasn't until 1900 that the red and white stripes with the peppermint flavor became tradition. The process of making the canes was laborious because they had to be pulled, twisted and bent by hand. Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest, invented a machine to automate production in the 1950s and suddenly candy canes were everywhere.

From those humble beginnings in a German church to the panoply of flavors and colors today, the candy cane remains an enduring symbol of Christmas.


Like many Christmas traditions — cards and stockings, for instance — eggnog originated in England. Literally, eggnog means "egg in a small cup." In Old England, noggin was the name for a small wooden cup and nog was a kind of strong beer.

In 17th century England, this liquid custard was spiked with sherry, brandy or Madeira and usually was a beverage reserved for the affluent. Eggs and milk were luxuries, reserved for farmers or landowners. In the United States, bourbon and rum became common because they were less expensive. On this side of the pond, egg-grog would be a more apt name.

At its very basic, store-bought eggnog is served chilled with ground nutmeg floating on top.

A nip or more of eggnog at Christmastime is certainly a guilty pleasure. The thick, nutmeg-spiked egg drink is no friend of the health-conscious. A cup can have as much as 350 calories and 20 grams of fat. Ah, but what the heck. The resolutions of the new year are just days away.


If you grew up in Florida, an orange in your stocking wasn't all that special. After all, around here, they do grow on trees. And if you're a contemporary kid used to having every candy under the sun available at the corner convenience store, an orange, well, it seems cheap.

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But in colder climates and in places where fresh fruit was a luxury, a brilliant orange was indeed a treat. Better than a lump of coal, for sure.

The tradition may reference an old Christmas tale in which St. Nicholas left bags of gold in stockings hung by the fire. Since bags of gold were, and still are, difficult to come by, oranges became an affordable substitute.

In the United States, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1880s made citrus from California and Florida available to all parts of the country. And that's how the long-lasting fruit found its way into stockings and remains a tradition today.


The tradition of fashioning gingerbread into people and houses comes from Germany, birthplace of the decor- ated Christmas tree, advent wreaths and Silent Night.

Gingerbread includes a wide variety of sweet, spicy cookies, cakes and breads. Ginger-flavored sweets originated in medieval Europe, where ginger was a popular spice, prized for its taste and its medicinal properties. Also, medieval cooks discovered that ginger preserved pastries and breads. Ginger itself originated in the Middle East and reached Europe by the 11th century.

Gingerbread evolved into a Christmas treat because of its association with special events. Vendors, traveling to fairs across England, Germany, France and the Netherlands, became adept at cutting the gingerbread into fanciful shapes, associated with the time of year. Other shapes included windmills, kings, queens and various animals. By the 18th century, gingerbread makers had developed their art so elaborately that the term "gingerbread" was coined to describe fancy carved wood trim on houses.


The sugarplums of yesteryear aren't likely to be dancing in the heads of 21st century kids dreaming of a visit from Santa Claus. Sour Patch Kids and Gummi bears, oh yes. Dried fruit, no way.

You see, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas (or Twas the Night Before Christmas as it is popularly called) in 1823, way before the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came along with pure imagination and Everlasting Gobstoppers.

In the early 1800s, sugarplums were candied fruit and sometimes candied spices or seeds. Some food historians say there was a bush that grew sugarplums, a fruit smaller than a plum, gold in color and sweet as honey. The fruit was scarce, thanks to hungry birds, and it was a special treat to find a sugared plum in a stocking on Christmas morning.

In Moore's day, a sugarplum might have been a dried and sweetened apricot or a cherry or even ginger, aniseeds or caraway seeds. All dried fruit was called by the generic "plum," which is why England's traditional Christmas dessert is called plum pudding even though it's studded with raisins, currants and figs and has no plums at all.

feast of the seven fishes

Many Italian-American families celebrate la vigilia (the vigil) on Christmas Eve with a luxurious buffet of seafood. Although the dishes have deep roots in Southern Italian cuisine, it's widely thought that the fishy feast is an American tradition. And in typical red, white and blue fashion, the go-big-or-go-home attitude prevails and some families have many more than seven offerings.

One of the typical fish dishes served is bacalao, dried, salted cod, which is also popular on the Latino holiday table.

Eating fish has long been a Christmas Eve tradition and you can credit the Catholic Church's tradition of abstinence for that. Often no meat or dairy is eaten on holy days.

The number seven could reference the day of rest following the six days it took to create the world, or the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Seven is reported to be the most repeated number in the Bible.

The seven deadly sins don't enter into this discussion, but it you are lucky enough to be in a family that celebrates this way — or get an invitation to one — put on your stretchy pants and enjoy a gluttonous repast.

roasted chestnuts

We don't know if chestnuts will be roasting over open fires much in Florida, but this is the time of year that the Old World nut crops up in food and song. Today, all over Northern Europe, you see men roasting chestnuts over crude contraptions resting in shopping carts. Not exactly a Currier and Ives scene.

Chestnuts have been a staple food in Mediterranean countries for centuries and were popular in the United States until a fungus virtually wiped out all chestnut trees in North America in the early 1900s. Americans now depend on imports, mostly from Italy.

Chestnuts have an earthy, musty taste. Though they can be eaten hot off the coals, they are better mellowed by the herbs in stuffing or in other dishes. Soon after roasting, the nuts can become so hard they could break a tooth if bitten too vigorously. However, they still can be chopped. Some larger grocery stores and most Italian markets carry chestnuts in the shell and unshelled chestnuts in a can, which are notably softer.

Even if you've never tried a chestnut, surely you know the song — made famous by Nat King Cole — that keeps it alive in holiday lore.


The dome-shaped Christmas yeast bread of Italy is nothing like American fruitcake despite the fact it is studded with candied citron, orange and lemon. Panettone (PAN-eh-tonay or PAN-eh-tone-ee) is much lighter, owing to the yeast, and less sweet than fruitcake.

Panettone has been around since the 15th century, when it was first made in Milan. One legend of the bread is that it was developed by a poor baker named Antonio (nicknamed Tone). Tone wanted to impress a stubborn king so that he might marry the king's daughter. The bread, or pane di Tone, did the trick, and the couple lived happily ever after. Another story has it that the bread was devised by a nobleman who wanted to marry the daughter of a baker. Still another variation is that it was concocted at a Christmas festival held by the Duke of Milan to replace one that the principal chef had burned.

Whatever the origin, panettone is a staple at Christmas in Italian households here and in Italy, though it wasn't until about 1920 that it became dome-shaped. Specialty food shops, discount stores and even grocery stores sell panettone in impressively designed boxes. Despite claims that commercial yeasts keep the bread moist, panettone is sometimes dry and benefits from a dollop of whipped cream or from being toasted and slathered with marmalade or just plain butter. Panettone can also be used in bread pudding recipes.

figgy pudding

Figgy pudding is a heavy steamed dessert, sometimes called Christmas pudding, which includes dried figs and a splash of something stronger, usually brandy. The finished product is similar to bread pudding. Old recipes call for bread crumbs; newer versions use graham cracker crumbs or flour.

The origin of fig pudding is medieval but fig pudding really achieved its glory in England's opulent Victorian era. The meat that was originally used — think mincemeat — gradually disappeared and more sweet dried fruit and nuts were added. Queen Victoria's hubby, Prince Albert, was a lover of heavy puddings; he introduced fig and plum versions to the royal Christmas table, and that's how a holiday tradition was born.

Dried fruit desserts — witness the oft-maligned fruitcake — are not as popular today as they once were. They predate the wide availability of sugar, giving them an important spot in food history. The fruit gave the desserts their sweetness.

Now that we both know what it is, we can bring you some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer, just as the song says.

the fruitcake

Could there be a more maligned Christmas food than the fruitcake? Doorstop. Sandbag. Speed bump. Weapon of mass destruction. Every January, Manitou Springs, Colo., hosts the Great Fruitcake Toss. (The next toss is Jan. 3, if you're headed out West.)

But before it became the food most likely to be left on the table, fruitcake was a luxury full of prized ingredients that screamed wealth and special occasions. Think about ancient Rome, where the first iterations of the fruitcake began. Pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins were folded into a not-so-sweet barley mash. (No ovens yet.) In the Middle East, honey and other spices were added. Eventually, the mixture was soaked with spirits to add flavor and help preserve it.

The fruitcake became a holiday staple all over Europe in the 15th century and then butter was added and then sugar, and the cake began to take the shape of what we know today.

American fruitcakes are heavy with dried fruits and nuts, probably the origination of the term "nutty as a fruitcake." The two most popular fruitcake manufacturers in the United States are Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and the Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Ga., which have been turning out the holiday cakes since the early 1900s. They've survived quite well, as has the fruitcake.

Sources: Times files; Encyclopedia of Christmas by Tanya Gulevich (Omnigraphics, 2000); National Confectioners Association; Wikipedia;;;