History of Traditional Holiday Foods

They may be delicious, but there are also historical reasons why we serve them up year after year. Here are the stories behind some favorites.

  • Eggnog: Originally made with "nog," a strong ale, and related to an English drink called "sack posset," which was made from a dry Spanish wine, eggs and cream.
  • Mulled wine: "Mull" is an Old English word for dust, so mulled wine may mean "dusted with spices." Spices, of course, are reminiscent of the gifts to the Christ child by the wise men.
  • Wassail: Traditionally a mixture of sherry and ale, the name comes from the old Anglo-Saxon greeting "was hale," meaning to "be hearty." It was originally topped with a garnish of toast, giving us the phrase, "to drink a toast."
  • Mincemeat: Mincemeat was made from chopped meat and suet, preserved with a lot of spirits, spices and sugar, even though our modern versions rarely use meat anymore.
  • Candy canes: These were supposedly invented by a priest who wanted to keep the children in the Christmas pageant quiet, so he hit upon making candy in the shape of a shepherd's staff.
  • Gingerbread: Many of our holiday traditions are of German origin. Gingerbread was a specialty of Nuremberg, where it was baked into houses and other shapes. (Remember Hansel and Gretel?) Some historians feel that baking gingerbread into people harks back to earlier times when human sacrifice, frowned upon by the Church, was acceptable.
  • Roasts: Fresh meat was only slaughtered and roasted when the weather was cold enough to provide natural refrigeration. Late December is usually quite cold, so roasts were often served. The remaining meat was salted, cured, corned or smoked (or maybe made into mincemeat to age for next year's holiday).
  • Plum pudding: The original "make-ahead" dessert (along with fruitcake, which also tastes better if aged). It harks back to the Druids, who made a similar pudding as an offering for the winter solstice. In England, the last Sunday before Advent is called "Stirring Up Day," not only because a prayer from that day's service has that phrase, but because it reminds the good cooks of the church to make their puddings early.

Happy Holidays everyone!


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