CHRISTMAS SEASON FOOD AND BEVERAGE TRADITIONS

posted Dec 22, 2018, 6:53 AM by Mary Tocimak

EGGNOG - Eggnog has a festive history as a staple for the British aristocracy. It’s based on a medieval drink called posse, which consisted of milk, often eggs, and some form of alcohol like sherry or Madeira. Since all the ingredients were expensive at the time, it became a drink of the wealthy. In the winter, the wealthy would drink warm milk and egg drinks with exclusive spices and liquors. Eventually, people in the American colonies were able to harvest the ingredients from their own farms and the drink caught on again. In fact, the drink you sip around the holidays today is uniquely American thanks to the rum—a critical component of American 'nog which never really caught on with the British upper classes.

CHRISTMAS COOKIES - In the more recent history of Christmas cookies, cut-out cookies are now almost universally associated with the holidays in the US. We can trace these cookies back to mumming, a Christmas tradition in colonial areas where the Church of England was influential. In mumming, Christmas stories were acted out and food was used to help depict the stories. Yule doughs were cut-outs made in this tradition, often in the shape of the baby Jesus. In the 1800s, Pennsylvania Dutch children created large cut out cookies as window decorations. Around this same time, Yule doughs became popular again and were called Yule dollies. They were made with tin cutters and shaped like people, elaborately decorated with icing (like today’s gingerbread men). The face was always made out of a scrap of paper cut out of magazines, which had to be removed before the cookie was eaten. They were controversial because some factions felt the cookies were not religious enough (i.e., not depicting Jesus).In the 1840s, Santa became associated with Christmas and dollies representing him, with a scrap face, were made. Some of these cookies were so beautifully decorated that they weren’t actually meant to be eaten (like today’s gingerbread houses). Yet another connection to Santa comes from the Dutch, who believed that pepernotencookies were thrown around on Christmas by Black Peter, Saint Nicholas’s helper.

GINGERBREAD - Cookies became associated with Christmas in Europe in the 1500s. Gingerbread was a similar food, but laws restricted its baking to guildsman, however at the holidays these regulations were relaxed and people were allowed to bake their own at home, making a very special once a year treat.

Gingerbread originated in the Crusades and was originally made using breadcrumbs, boiled with honey and seasoned heavily with spices. It was pressed onto cookie boards (carved slabs of wood with religious designs) and dried. Gingerbread evolved to become more secular and to use more modern ingredients. Eventually it became associated with Christmas when speculaas (gingerbread cookies) were made into animal and people shapes and used as holiday decorations.

COOKIES and Milk FOR SANTA - Ever wondered why size-challenged Santa is left cookies to fuel him on his one-night journey? Historians believe the tradition began during the Great Depression, as a way for parents to encourage generosity in their children. The tradition stuck, and Santa isn’t in danger of needing a smaller suit any time soon.

APPLE CIDER - It’s said that Julius Caesar and friends found the British drinking cider in 55 BCE. Europeans brought the tradition to the New World, where cider was such an important beverage that the trees Johnny Appleseed was planting were actually for cider making. In the early 20th century, the combination of improved refrigeration technology and the teetotalism movement allowed humans to drink the unfermented juice of apples, which led to Americans calling an unfiltered juice cider (the rest of the English-speaking world continued to use "cider" to mean an alcoholic beverage, though).

 

FRUITCAKE - Fruitcakes are just cakes with candied or dried fruit, nuts, and spices. The modern version of the much-maligned dish was likely whipped up in the Middle Ages, when dried fruits and nuts were really expensive. Because of the price of ingredients and the time and effort that went into making the dessert, it's assumed December festivities were felt to be the time most worthy of the hassle.

 

CRANBERRY SAUCE - Cranberries are harvested mid-September to mid-November, making them perfect to consume during holiday times. Marcus L. Urann first canned the berries in 1912 as a way to extend the short selling season, creating a jellied treat that acted as a sauce when warm.

 

CANDY CANES - They didn’t always have their stripes! According to legend, the original candy cane, made some 350 years ago, was an all-white sugar stick that was completely straight. In 1670, a choirmaster at a German cathedral bent the sticks to represent a shepherd's staff. The canes were given out to children during a nativity scene. The candy arrived in America sometime during the 19th century, and around that time the refining process for sugar had gotten to the point where it could be pure white and the development of better food dyes could create that strong red for the stripe.

 

OPLATKI - The tradition of the Oplatki originated in Poland during Early Christian times. This Christmas Custom began with a simple white wafer, baked from flour and water. The wafers are wonderfully designed to display Christmas images, such as the Nativity. 

            How to Celebrate the Oplatki Tradition - The Oplatki are enjoyed by families, typically right before the Christmas Eve meal. The entire family will gather around the table with the Oplatki.  Generally the eldest member of the family will begin the ritual by breaking off a piece of the wafer and passing it to another family member with a blessing.  This blessing can simply consist of what you desire for your loved one in the upcoming year – whether it be good health, success, or happiness. The purpose of this act is primarily to express ones unconditional love and forgiveness for each member of his or her family.

            The Symbolism - The significance of the Oplatki Christmas wafer is in that it shadows the Eucharistic meal that Catholics participate in at each Mass.  Just as we share in the Eucharist as one family in Christ and receive Christ’s love through the Eucharist, the Oplatki allows for one’s immediate family to come together and share the love they have for one another.  This symbolism is deepened by the fact that the name of the town where Jesus Christ was born, Bethlehem, means "House of Bread," which makes the Oplatki tradition an especially beautiful way to celebrate the charity and unity so characteristic of the Christmas season.

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