Mention roasting chestnuts, a savory smoked ham or the cool peppermint finish off a hand-pulled candy cane, and you’re bound to evoke Christmas memories any time of the year. But how did these iconic foods – so vital to holiday menus, and so ingrained with the culture of the holiday – become associated with Christmas in the first place?
A 19th-century German innovation for counting down the days until Christmas, the Advent calendar was designed to mark the Advent period while heightening anticipation for the holiday. To engage children in the tradition, many calendars conceal a candy or sweet treat behind each day’s door. From heirloom candy houses to a calendar made entirely from cookies, it’s becoming easier to find gourmet Advent calendars.
Folk legends abound about how panettone became associated with Christmas. Some say the sweet Milanese bread was developed in the 1400’s by the Duke’s falconer and his love Adalgisa, a poor baker’s daughter. Working in secret at night, the two created a rich bread that revived the bakery’s business. At Christmas, they added dried fruit and citron, a resounding success that made the baker wealthy and allowed the couple to marry. A less romantic possibility is that as a “Pane di Tono” or luxury bread, the lofty loaf—with its expensive ingredients, and long proofing and preparation time—it was reserved for Christmas.
Gingerbread has an incredibly long history as a foodstuff, and we know it has been shaped into Christmas tree ornaments since at least the Victorian era. As for gingerbread houses, they became popular after the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel, though it’s unclear whether the edible edifices got their start as a literary invention. In parts of Europe in the 17th century, only professional gingerbread makers were allowed to bake the stuff year-round. That restriction was lifted during Christmas and Easter, which may explain the Christmas-gingerbread connection.
Plum Pudding aka Figgy Pudding aka Christmas Pudding
In Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Bloomfield explains the tradition of eating plum pudding on Christmas originated with a Roman Catholic Church decree to make a 13 ingredient-pudding to represent Christ and the apostles. Stir It Up Sunday hearkens to that time, too—family members took turns stirring the pudding from east to west to commemorate the Magi’s journey. “Plum” once denoted any dried fruit, as reflected by Victorian pudding recipes, which included raisins, currants, beef suet, citrus zest, almonds, and spices— but not plums (or even prunes!).
Countless vocalists have covered “The Christmas Song,” aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” But how did chestnuts become a Christmas icon? Starchy, nourishing chestnuts may have been one of the earliest foods eaten by humans, and unlike many traditional Christmas foods, they weren’t a rare luxury —chestnuts grow wild and have been used historically as a subsistence food. Their humble nature may be key to the Christmas connection; on Martinstag, or The Feast of St. Martin, the poor receive a symbolic gift of chestnuts for sustenance. Benedictine nuns in Tuscany prepare Pieno di Natale, a rustic chestnut dessert, for Christmas.
Buche de Noel
The Bûche de Noël is a log-shaped cake meant to evoke the Yule log that once burned in European hearths throughout Christmas. Made of layered or rolled genoise sponge cake filled with mousse or buttercream, the Bûche de Noël is often decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms, forest creatures, or holly leaves. You can find Bûche de Noël at French patisseries, or order one online.
Sugar, once a precious—and expensive—commodity, was typically reserved for holidays like Christmas. According to folklore, the shepherd’s crook-shaped candy cane originated around 1670, the invention of a German choirmaster as an enticement to keep young singers quiet during services. We don’t know if there’s truth to this story, but we do know that in 1847 Ohio, a German immigrant named August Imgard decorated his Christmas tree with candy canes. We also know colored stripes were added after 1900, likely to denote peppermint or wintergreen flavors.
A boar’s head was the edible centerpiece on the wealthiest holiday tables in Tudor England, a holdover from the pagan tradition to honor Freyr, a Norse god of the harvest and fertility, who was associated with boars. For those of lesser means, a Yule ham took the place of the showier boar’s head. Today, ham remains the cornerstone of Christmas menus in many parts of the world.
Mincemeat, in its original incarnation—chopped meat mixed with dried fruits, sugar, and spices—was a way to stretch a meat supply and use up leftovers. Over time, less and less meat was included in the recipe, so that the mincemeat we know today is made entirely from fruits, sugar, alcohol, and sometimes, in a nod to its origins, suet.
By the 16th century, mince pies were a British Christmas specialty. Some surmise that mincemeat pies were popular at Christmas thanks to the Saturnalia tradition of presenting sweetmeats to Roman fathers in the Vatican. Puritans condemned mincemeat pies as a Catholic custom, which may explain why they’re less popular in the US than in the UK.
Stollen is first mentioned in 15th-century documents, though the recipe changed significantly since then. In the 1400’s, Saxon royals spent 40 years petitioning a string of Popes before permission to use butter in stollen was finally granted. The inclusion of butter made for a richer cake; over time the recipe evolved into the dried fruit- and marzipan-accented loaf now prized at Christmas. Said to represent the swaddled Baby Jesus, the oblong, sugar-dusted stollen loaves are sometimes called Christollen.
The recipes for the heavily fruit-laden, sometimes boozy fruitcakes we associate with Christmas today have their roots in the Middle Ages. Dried fruits and sugar were expensive imports, so using them in large quantity was strictly a special-occasion endeavor (hence fruitcake as a traditional wedding cake option). Plus, in the days of hard-to-regulate wood-burning ovens, successful cake baking was a tricky undertaking.
Oranges, Clementines, Mandarins, and Other Citrus
In these days of modern refrigeration and air-shipped produce, we tend to take perishable items for granted. But oranges and other citrus fruits were once a precious luxury in Europe and North America, enjoyed for only a brief period each year. Bright, sunny, and bursting with fragrant juice, oranges, tangerines, and clementines made welcome Christmas gifts, especially in the midst of cold winter.
Eggnog, as we know it today, is a variation of milk- and wine-based English punches that date back to at least the 17th century. Nogs were often made for social occasions, to toast the health of those who partook, so they were a natural choice for spreading Christmas cheer. Today’s eggnogs are a frothy concoction of eggs, milk, and sugar spiked with rum or bourbon. The recipe is simple, but if you prefer to eschew raw eggs, there are pasteurized commercial eggnogs readily available in supermarkets. There are even vegan nogs and artisan eggnogs from small farms. Because dairy is a relatively local product, brand availability varies by region. Seek out all-natural eggnogs, add your own alcohol, and finish with a grating of fresh nutmeg.