During the holiday season, stores are filled with evidence of the many traditions that people follow between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Candy canes, wreaths, tinsel and twinkling lights bring thoughts of the holidays throughout the year, but few are aware of how some of those traditional holiday items became such mainstays in our culture.
Probably one of the most recognized symbols of the holiday season is the candy cane, with its distinctive shape and peppermint stripes. The origins of the candy cane date back to the 1600’s, when Christmas trees became popular in Europe. During that period, people decorated the tree with homemade items, such as cookies and candy. The earliest version of the candy cane was originally a white, straight stick of candy.
In Cologne, Germany, around 1670, the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral bent the sticks into canes to represent shepherd’s staffs and handed them out to children to keep them quiet during long nativity services during the holiday season. This tradition spread throughout Europe, although the canes remained white. The idea to use them as a Christmas decoration came to America when a German immigrant decorated his Christmas tree with them in Wooster, Ohio.
It is unclear when or why the canes became striped peppermint candies. Christmas cards prior to 1900 showed only white canes, but cards after 1900 depicted them as white. This was around the same time that candy makers began flavoring the canes with peppermint and wintergreen. Some believe that the candy cane became a symbol of Christianity during times of repression and that the striping represented Christ’s blood and purity, although there is no historical reference to document the belief.
There are several plants that are associated with the holiday season, including the poinsettia, mistletoe, and holly. Each of these has a related legend that connects it to the holiday season.
The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico, where the flower is known as either “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night.” The legend is that two children, Maria and her brother, Pablo, who enjoyed visiting a local village where a large manger scene was set up each year. The villagers celebrated Christmas with parades and parties, and often left gifts for the Baby Jesus. Maria and Pablo were poor and unable to bring gifts to the manger, so one Christmas Eve, they picked some weeds along the side of the road and took them to the display. When they placed the flowers around the manger, the top leaves turned into bright red petals, according to the legend, and they become synonomous with Christmas from then on.
Mistletoe was a sacred plant to the Norse, Celtic Druids and North American Indians. Originally, hanging mistletoe over your door protected the home against thunder, lightning and other evils, while placing a sprig in a baby’s bed protected them from goblins. In Norse mythology, Frigga, the Goddess of Love, and the mother of Balder, the God of the summer sun, protected her child by seeking the promise of air, fire, water, earth, as well as all animals and plants that they would cause Balder no harm. However, she overlooked mistletoe, and legend has it that Loki, the God of evil, created an arrow of mistletoe and used it to kill Balder. Frigga’s tears turned the berries of the plant white and brought Balder back to life. The legend ended that anyone who stood under mistletoe would be safe from harm and that only a kiss should befall them. In the 18th century, a kiss was a promise to marry, and a girl standing under mistletoe could not refuse to be kissed.
For many cultures, holly represents peace and joy. The earliest uses of holly were during the Roman pagan festivals of Saturnalis, when early Christians decorated their homes with holly to avoid persecution. In addition, the Druids believed that holly, whose leaves remained green and whose berries lasted throughout the winter, kept the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost its leaves.
Fruitcake and Eggnog
Fruitcake, that rich, fruit-laden, boozy confection that appears every Christmas season, has its holiday roots in the Middle Ages. At the time, dried fruit and sugar was expensive, so people only ate fruit-laden cakes on special occasions. In fact, at the time, fruitcake was also a common staple at weddings.
Eggnog today is a variation of a milk and wine based punch made in England as far back as the 17th century. People often drank nogs at special occasions and were used to toast the health of those celebrating. Today’s eggnog is closely related to a popular 17th century English drink called “posset,” which contained milk, eggs and ale. It is believed the word “eggnog” translates to “egg noggin.” A noggin was a wooden mugged used in taverns for drinks.