By: Malena Esposito
It’s December 24th. You’re sipping your hot chocolate, delving into some figgy pudding, and maybe even sucking on a candy cane as you set out your milk and cookies for Santa, but why? There’s no doubt that these foods are all part of a classic American holiday diet, but have you ever stopped to wonder how this diet came to be?
Milk and Cookies
The origins of the famous milk-and-cookies tradition can be traced to the 1930s in America. When suffering through the Great Depression, parents used milk and cookies to teach their children that while they might be fortunate enough to receive gifts that year, not everyone was as lucky. By setting out a plate of warm cookies and a glass of milk, it taught the kids the lesson of gratitude, and that giving is just as important as receiving. Another origin of the milk-and-cookie custom comes from Norse mythology. Odin, a Norse god, rode with his trusty steed, Sleipner, throughout the German holiday season of the Yuletide festivals. By leaving food for this eight-legged horse, the children believed Odin would stop by and deliver them gifts and treats such as chocolate; mandarin oranges; or marzipan, a sweet almond dish. Over time, many countries have developed their own milk-and-cookie tradition, ranging from handwritten letters in Germany to mince pies in Britain and Australia. Santa might have even been treated to some Guinness when visiting Ireland or some wine in France.
But what do you drink with your cookies? Hot chocolate or eggnog? If it’s a warm glass of cocoa, you can thank the Mayans from 500 BC. Using water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and ground up cocoa seeds, this ancient civilization poured the ingredients together from cup to pot until a cold, heavy foam developed. Fast forward a thousand years or so, and the conquistadors brought back the ingredients to Spain, where they heated the mixture up, sweetened it, and ditched the chili peppers so that it could be enjoyed by King Charles V and other wealthy people. However, it wasn’t until the 1700s when milk started to be included in this delicious drink, a trend started by Hans Sloane of the Royal College of Physicians. For the next couple hundred years, hot chocolate, in addition to being enjoyed after dinner or on special occasions, was used as medicine to treat stomach problems and liver disease.
As for the eggnog, I promise that this drink didn’t get its name because it was a common practice to chug raw eggs. On the contrary, the word “eggnog” is Old English for small beer, while “noggin” means a small cup. In terms of the beverage itself, Britain monks drank a “warm ale punch with eggs and figs” in the 1200s called “posset.” As time passed, the drink was served at social European gatherings using milk and sherry, the wine of white grapes. By the 1600s, eggnog was toasted in hopes of better health and a prosperous future. However, due to a short supply of milk, eggs, and sherry, only the wealthiest from the New and Old Worlds sould afford eggnog.
Now, I know you’ve heard of figgy pudding, but what is it and why would you bring it to anybody? Interestingly enough, it wasn’t always a booze-filled cake. Hear me out on this one. Back in medieval times, dried meats and fruits were kept in a pastry bag for preservation during the winter months. When liquids were added, the mixture expanded and was able to feed several people. With ingredients like beef, raisins, wine, prunes, and spices, it had a more soupy consistency. As the years passed, meat became a less common ingredient and the use of eggs, bread crumbs, sugar, fruits, and spices became more popular. This recipe also has several traditions that come with it, one of the oldest being “Stir-up Sunday.” The pudding was made about a month before Christmas and was served the last Sunday before Advent, containing objects that were believed to bring luck and caused the entire table to envy the person with the lucky slice. Another tradition was to have each family member make a wish while stirring the uncooked dessert, while others specifically stirred with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honor of the three wise men. Additional symbols included using thirteen ingredients in the recipe to represent Jesus and His twelve disciples, a holly sprig to represent the Crown of thorns that Jesus wore upon His crucifixion, and pouring booze over the pudding to represent Jesus’ love and power.
Nothing screams holiday spirit like a gingerbread house, right? With white icing, gumdrops, and candy canes, how many times do you just want to give up your dreams of being a dessert architect and bite into the poor heads of the ginger people? Though gingerbread can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes, the earliest recipes called for ground almonds; stale breadcrumbs; rosewater; sugar; and, of course, ginger. Pressed into molds, the paste told stories about kings, emperors, and queens, or contained religious symbols. If you were rich enough, the cookie masterpiece might have been decorated with edible gold paint to bring out details and with white icing if you weren’t so wealthy. By the 1500s, flour substituted the breadcrumbs, eggs and sweeteners, developing a softer, melt-in-your-mouth treat. In fact, around this time, Queen Elizabeth I invented the gingerbread man, using her suitors as inspiration. Because of her, the treats were exchanged at fairs, symbolizing a token of love. As for the gingerbread houses, they became popular after the Brothers’ Grimm publication of Hansel and Gretel in Germany. After that, German settlers started bringing their houses, which they called “lebkuchenhaeusles,” to the Americas in the 1800s.
Last but not least, — the candy cane — that pepperminty treat you anonymously gave your crush in middle school. According to a popular European story, a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany was growing weary of the inability of the children to settle down during his Nativity scene reenactment, so he asked a local candy maker to create a white sugar stick with a hook at the end. The hook, while serving as a handle for the children to eat their candy, doubled as a reminder of the shepherds he discussed in the reenactment. The credibility of this story is very shaky, but it can be confirmed that around this time, Germans used the white-hooked candy to decorate their trees. By the 1920s, Bob McCormack was able to successfully start a business using the treat brought over to America by immigrants. With the help of his brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, priest and inventor, the pair was able to develop the Keller Machine, which curved the candy canes in a more efficient fashion. Since then, there has been much debate over the symbolic meaning of candy canes. Some say the “J” shape was for “Jesus,” the three red stripes for the Holy Trinity, and the rigid texture for the strong foundation of the church. Others even go so far to claim that the red and white stripes symbolized Jesus’ blood and purity, and the peppermint flavor represented the old hyssop herb, mentioned in the Old Testament.
So, there you have it — the origins of six popular Christmas treats. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever need this information, but at least the next time you get offered figgy pudding or eggnog, you’ll know what you’re getting into.