‘Tis the season for holiday sweets, treats, and indulgences. For the last several weeks, seasonal goodies have pervaded grocery store shelves, taken center stage in bakery display cases, and filled our homes with heavenly aromas. But precisely how did these festive flavors come to be so utterly ubiquitous? Here are the unexpected origins of a few familiar holiday foods.
Gingerbread is such a fixture of the Christmas season that we rarely stop to ponder the reasons we shape it into gumdrop-studded edible architecture, or tiny men with frosting-piped smiles.
The first recipes for gingerbread purportedly trace back as far as ancient Greece and 10th century China, where ginger was cultivated for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Once the coveted spice made its way from China via the Silk Road, Western Europeans developed their own recipes—as well as a flair for adapting the treat in increasingly elaborate ways. Queen Elizabeth I herself is credited with decorating the very first gingerbread man, while gingerbread houses were popularized in 16th century Germany, inspiring—or possibly inspired by—the Brothers Grimm fairytale of Hansel and Gretel.
2. Pumpkin Pie
First cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C., the pumpkin is one of the first foods early European explorers brought back from the New World. It’s believed that the native Wampanoag people introduced pumpkins to the Pilgrims, who quickly incorporated the New World gourd into their Old World tradition of pie-making.
But the humble pumpkin pie didn’t transform into an American mainstay until the 19th century, when it became an unlikely symbol of political pride. At that time, Thanksgiving dinner was only a regional tradition, celebrated almost exclusively in New England. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, a decision the Confederacy condemned as a power play to impose Yankee culture on the South. When the Civil War ended, Northern dominion spread throughout the nation—and with it spread pumpkin pie.
3. Peppermint Bark
Peppermint bark—that creamy-crunchy confection of milk and white chocolate studded with peppermint candy pieces—is a relatively new addition to the pantheon of traditional holiday treats. It can be traced back at least to the 1960’s, but has gained much of its popularity in recent years thanks to premium chocolatiers like Ghirardelli.
Chocolate bark can be made with many types of toppings, of which peppermint is only one. Traditionally made with layers of chocolate topped with anything from dried fruit and nuts to crystallized ginger to novelty candies, “bark” gets its name from its textural appearance, reminiscent of the bark of a tree.
But the reason behind chocolate bark’s toppings is more than just visual or textural appeal. The confection has its origins in the traditional French Christmas candies known as mendiants. These small discs of chocolate featured toppings said to symbolize the colors of the robes of the four major orders of the Roman Catholic Church: almonds (Carmelites), hazelnuts (Augustins), dried figs (Franciscans), and raisins (Dominicans).
4. Candy Canes
Candy canes are ubiquitous during the holiday season, appearing everywhere from holiday home decor to the flavoring in your winter morning mocha to the crunchy crumbles on peppermint bark. But where did candy canes come from?
The truth may be known only to the Ghost of Christmas Past, but several theories abound. The most widespread theory speaks of a 17th century German choirmaster who devised a particularly delicious scheme to keep a group of unruly children from fidgeting during a nativity play. As legend has it, he took several straight, plain white sugar sticks (a popular confection in that day), and bent them into the shape of a shepherd’s crook, before handing them out to the children to suck on.
However, there’s no hard evidence to support this—or any other—candy cane conjectures.
This creamy cocktail has a history nearly as rich as the drink itself. Eggnog can trace its roots back to 14th century England, where wealthy aristocrats who could afford expensive ingredients like milk, eggs, spices, and liquor would mix them into a hot, decadent
brew known as “posset.” But as these ingredients became scarce in England, so too did posset’s popularity.
It’s only thanks to good old American agrarian grit that eggnog entered into enduring holiday tradition. Once the American colonies were established, both dairy farms and distilleries became prevalent, ensuring even common-folk could imbibe creamy, boozy eggnog to their hearts’ content.
6. Milk and Cookies for Santa
There are few holiday traditions as sweet, kind-hearted, and innocent as that of children laying out cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. So it should come as a surprise the tradition traces a murky, winding path from pagan myths and rituals to Depression-era morality lessons.
It’s theorized that the concept of leaving cookies for Santa possibly originates in the winter solstice rituals of pre-Christian pagan Europe, when gifts of food were left as offerings for the spirits. And according to ancient Norse mythology, the god Odin was said to lead Yuletide hunting festivities astride his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. It was thought that if children left treats out for Sleipnir, he would visit their homes with gifts of thanks.
European immigrants eventually carried the lore of their homeland with them to America, where it merged with the Victorian-era convention of gifting sweet treats to ones’ guests as a gesture of hospitality. But it was only during the Great Depression that leaving cookies for Santa solidified its role in American culture; with so many families down on their luck, parents used the opportunity to teach their children that even during tough times, there’s always value in generosity.