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CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS AND THEIR ORIGINS

Posted by Ciara Higgins, December 2020

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Christmas rituals are deeply-held and well-loved traditions, but do you know where they came from?

Some must-do’s have been around for centuries; year after year we come back to them and lovingly pass them down through the generations. But have you ever wondered why we place an orange in the toe of the Christmas stocking or why we stick jellies to gingerbread in the shape of houses?

 

Here’s the story behind five of our favourite food-focused traditions.

1. CHESTNUTS

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Long before that famous carol (yes, it’s been stuck in my head since December 1st!), edible chestnuts were a staple at Christmas time as they grew plentifully in North America throughout Autumn. The nuts they produced were apparently small and sweet, with a flavour almost like a carrot when eaten raw. After roasting, the flavour got nuttier, and took on an almost candied sweetness. A blight, however, took hold in 1904 and within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut tree was dead.

The edible variety grown in Europe are a far cry from the sweet snack earlier Americans enjoyed. They are quite bland and mushy and more widely consumed either chopped up in cakes with sugar, or as an addition to stuffing.

2. AN ORANGE IN THE TOE OF YOUR STOCKING

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This is another Christmas tradition with pre-Christian history. In Germany and Scandinavia, children would leave out their boots filled with sugar, carrots and straw for the Norse god Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir. This is probably where leaving out a snack for Santa and reindeers in the sky came from too.

 

Anyway, this evolved into the practice of hanging stockings because over time it merged with the legend of Saint Nicholas – in Dutch he’s called Sinterklaas and in English, Santa Claus. The legend goes that one day, Saint Nicholas dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of a poor man who had no dowry for his daughters. The gold is still represented today, by an orange.

3. MINCE PIES

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It’s said that the first mince pies had 13 ingredients, representing Jesus Christ and his 12 Apostles. These were exotic Middle-Eastern-inspired delicacies, originating with the Crusaders, and included meat, fruit and spices. The oval shape of these early treats was believed to represent the manger of baby Jesus.

 

Sometime in the 19th century, the meat disappeared for good. The original cookbook, Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, published in 1861, gives two recipes, one with and one without meat.

4. CANDY CANES

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The lore of a candy cane comes from the difficult task of keeping children quiet during long church services. In particular, the most commonly told story is that of a choirmaster from Germany who created the crooked candied to keep his choirboys silent and appeased during Christmas mass. The shape is either meant to replicate the shepherd’s crook or the letter J, for Jesus.

5. GINGERBREAD

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The origins of gingerbread are not precise. Ginger root was first cultivated in China around 5,000 years ago, and was thought to have medicinal and magical properties. When its usefulness as a preservative was discovered is unclear, but some food historians say that the first known recipe for gingerbread dates from around 2400 BC in Greece, followed by Chinese recipes in the 10th century, and finally hard gingerbread cookies cut out in shapes sold during medieval fairs in England, France, Holland, and Germany.

 

It is said that Queen Elizabeth I ordered gingerbread cookies made and decorated to resemble visiting dignitaries. Elaborately decorated cookies were a symbol of wealth, often featuring gold leaf. The first gingerbread houses originated in 16th century Germany, though it is unclear whether the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel or the houses came first.

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