Welcome back to my series on Holiday History Recollections, where I’m looking at some of the posts I’ve done over the years on the history of holiday words and traditions!
If you’ve missed the previous ones in this series, you can find them here:
Holiday History Recollection #1
Earlier this week we looked at the stories behind some songs…today let’s look at some tasty holiday treats: eggnog, wassail, fruitcake, and Christmas cookies!
What’s the history of eggnog, and how did it get tied to Christmas?
The beverage itself dates back to the Middle Ages as “posset,” a drink that combined milk, eggs, alcohol, and spices. The egg part of its eventual name, then, is obvious–and it seems that nog was a strong, ale-like drink, though no one’s quite sure on the etymology of that part. The ingredients, however, were expensive, which meant it was reserved for the wealthy or for times of celebration.
At least until the recipe came to America. Since so many people here had farms, and hence access to cream and eggs and cheap Caribbean rum, eggnog quickly became a favorite beverage for special occasions for everyone. George Washington even shared his favorite recipe (which was quite heavy on the liquor, LOL). The drink became known as eggnog first in America around 1775.
Are you an eggnog fan? Store bought? Homemade? With or without alcohol? (My daughter and I prefer it without, but my husband enjoys the flavors more with a dash of sherry or rum in there.)
We’ve all heard “wassailing” in some of the old Christmas songs. And you probably have an awareness (vague or otherwise) of wassail being a drink. But if you’re anything like me (before I had to research it for a book a few years ago), that’s the extent of your knowledge. 😉
Wassail is from the Old Norse ves heill, which literally means “be healthy.” It was first a salutation and then became a sort of drinking salute among the Danes in England, which then spread to the natives. But 1300, it wasn’t only something one said while lifting a glass, but also what was in the glass–particularly spiced ale that was served on Christmas Eve.
By 1600, it had taken on a bit of a “carousing” meaning, which then extended by 1742 to the practice of going house to house on Christmas Eve, caroling and offering the traditional spiced drink. In Colonial America, wassail was traditionally sold by the poor to the rich–an excuse for them to come in and see how the other half lived, and a way for the rich to give alms to the poor.
So this season, if you lift you glass in salute (whatever might be in it), try saying “Wassail!” and see if anyone understands, LOL.
Ever wonder why this cake has become a holiday staple, despite all the jokes about how much people hate it?
Well, let’s start by stripping off the layers of dislike. Up until they began to be mass-produced, fruitcake was a much-beloved special-occasion treat, made with care and considered a rare treat–and a long-lasting one.
The fruit in fruitcake is dried and candied (soaked in sugar), which means it’s well preserved. The cake itself is often made or stored with alcohol too, which in turn kills bacteria. The result? This cake can last. Up to 25 YEARS is the accepted limit (??) on its shelf-life, and apparently it was often traditional to make a cake one Christmas for eating the next. (Yeah. Sure. Why not.) Cultures around the world have their own varieties of fruitcake, with slight variations but equal presence.
So why did it get tied to Christmas? Well, it was reserved for special occasions for centuries, because the ingredients were costly. Fruit, historically, was not cheap, and neither were sugar and butter. It was a favorite cake for weddings, and of course, that most special day of the year–Christmas! So to give a gift of a fruitcake was thoughtful and would have been well received. People could treasure it, savor it, enjoy a bit here and then a bit there without fear of it spoiling.
Where do you come down on fruitcake? Special treat, or dreaded gift? Have you ever tried a homemade variety, or just the mass-produced kind? (I’d be interested in sampling a homemade one sometime! I’ll have to add it to my eventual-holiday-baking list.)
Ah, Christmas cookies. The baking, the decorating, the consuming…all part of the holiday tradition in many families. And it’s been that way for hundreds of years.
Feasts have been a part of Christmas celebration for untold centuries, and since it was counted as one of the most important days of the Christian year, that meant that all the expensive, special foods were reserved for that day. Which included spices, sugar, butter, and lard. So naturally, when one wanted to make a special treat for Christmas, one brought out these prized ingredients and created a sweet delicacy, often in the form of cookies.
The concept of beautiful decorated cookies originated with the Germans, like many of our other Christmas traditions. Why did they go to such trouble to cut out and decorate their cookies? Because they then used them as decorations on the tree! Cookie cutters became widely (and cheaply) available in the late 1800s, helping this tradition to spread.
So when did we start leaving these sweet treats for Santa? Interestingly, that dates only to 1930s America. In the throes of the Great Depression, most families didn’t have a lot…but they wanted to instill in their children the idea of not only being grateful for what they had and what they received, but of giving too. Cookies were something small and relatively inexpensive but nevertheless precious that families could offer in gratitude. Originally, stockings were filled with such treats for Santa. But over the years, people instead put the cookies and milk out for him and left the stockings empty, to be filled by him.
I have a wonderful eggnog recipe, which can have liquor, but I make it without.
I have never made a fruit cake, but my mother made a wonderful one, which I never appreciated until I was a young adult. As a child, I watched her brown the flour, stirring it in her big club aluminum roaster, placed over two burners. She cut up candied fruit and floured it before putting everything together. Then she wrapped it in cheese cloth and periodically dipped the cheese cloth in sherry. In my 40’s I began requesting a fruitcake when she asked what I wanted for Christmas. One of our close friends raved about, so she began making one for Terry each year also. Sadly, I never got her recipe, but probably wouldn’t go to the trouble to make it anyway.
I’m more of a cookie person, and always make frosted sugar cookies, peanut blossoms, mint surprise, Russian Teacakes, and the old standby chocolate chips at Christmas.
My mom used to make eggnog for us in the summer, so I was an adult before I found out most people associated it with Christmas. Obviously she made it without alcohol for us as kids, so that’s how I’m used to it. But it’s definitely better with nutmeg than cinnamon!
As for fruitcake, my mom used to make that too, but I’ve never been a fan of candied fruit, so I steered clear of that.
I was always the cookie baker of the family. In recent years, I’ve slacked off, but I always at least make gingerbread cookies (soft, not crunchy, and no frosting; they’re better plain).