Christmas dinner is steeped in tradition — from the ever-present turkey to the kids running around with half-eaten candy canes clutched in their sticky little fists, and, of course, the 25-pound fruitcake that someone’s weird aunt always makes.
But the origins of many of what we view as simply tried-and-true traditional, standard holiday fare is actually pretty, well, weird.
Let’s start with food plucked from the opening lines of one of the most beloved Christmas poems known — Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” — otherwise known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Written in 1823, the poem forever placed sugar plums firmly into the Christmas tradition.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.”
So…about those visions that have been dancing in our heads since childhood. Have you ever actually really tried to picture a sugar plum? What if you were told that those sugar plum fairies dancing around have nothing at all to do with plums?
In fact, all “sugar plum” really means is a type of candy. To be exact, it’s a type of candy made by sugar hardened a central seed of kernel in a process called panning, which results in a glossy shell similar to what we see on jelly beans or M&Ms. Sugar plums were most often made with caraway or cardamom seeds at the center — almonds were also used.
Plums had nothing to do with it. Weird, right?
And keeping with the candy theme, the classic red-and-white striped candy canes had a very specific purpose: To keep children quiet.
According to legend, the candy cane was invented by the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral, who commissioned them to be handed out to children attending the church’s creche scene. The candies were to be shaped like a shepherd’s crook so that those who were passing out what is basically pure sugar to kids could at least pretend that there was a lesson to go along with it, and the tasty peppermint treats were meant to keep the kids quiet during the service. Pretty clever — and perhaps the least weird of Christmas traditions.
And as for your favorite (but weird) aunt’s booze-soaked fruitcake? Well, there is a reason for that, as well. The cake is meant to be stuffed full of sugar and liberally soaked in alcohol because both sugar and alcohol help preserve it. The cake is meant to be baked at the end of the harvest season and then saved throughout the year and eaten at the beginning of the next harvest season for good luck. So when you are handed the hefty loaf filled with fruit bits and nuts, thank that person for their “celebration in horticulture,” and be silently thankful that you aren’t expected to eat it until next year.
And as for the ubiquitous roast turkey — the traditional crowning glory of almost any holiday feast? That’s a fairly new tradition, and didn’t become commonplace until Henry VIII had a turkey for Christmas in the sixteenth century. Before that, it was a different type of bird that held the place of honor at the Christmas dinner table.
A peacock, to be exact. Sounds delicious, right?
No, it doesn’t. It sounds weird.
And if you really want to bum people out with your knowledge of weird Christmas dinner facts, let them know that the average person consumes more than 7,000 calories on that day. Yes. Per person. Between the wine, the mixed nuts, the fruit cake, the turkey (or peacock) and the sugar plums, a lot of folks are eating more than three times the allotted suggested caloric intake for a day.
Is peacock healthier than turkey?
If that 7,000-calorie fact stresses you out, click here to read expert tips on how to make your holiday season just a little less stress-filled and a little more jolly.