The winter holiday season is often a time of food and drink that is not on our regular menu rotation and even not available at other times of the year. Many have strong, distinct flavors.
Gingerbread and Candy Canes both have legends that pluck the chords of ritual, nostalgia, and tradition. But, does their history really originate with religion? Let’s get into it!
Gingerbread was not created to remind us of Jesus dying for sins and being prepared for burial with spices. But it does have an interesting history. Gingerbread as we enjoy it now, either as a crisp cookie or a tender cake, has very humble beginnings. The earliest records of something like it can be traced back to Rome and China. This early gingerbread precedes sugar and leavening. It was quite different in texture and taste. Early recipes involve breadcrumbs, honey, wine, and spices that were baked at a low temperature. Without a more finely ground grain, such as flour; and leavening, like eggs or baking soda, I expect it would have more of a granola bar texture than that of a crisp cookie. Ginger grows commonly in Asia and South Asia and most likely found its way to Europe when the Crusaders returned from their violent conquests. Ginger was considered medicinal and found to settle the stomach. Ginger flavoring may have been used to disguise the taste of meat that was starting to spoil.
Gingerbread gained popularity in Europe and was elevated with fancy, carved molds. The gingerbread mixture would be something like boiled honey, breadcrumbs, wine, and spices. It would be molded or pressed into a carved wooden board with images that were often seasonal or timely like birds, famous people, animals, armor. Festivals and other social gathering would include sales of this treat, called fairings. Some gingerbread was decorated so intricately it was used as decorations in the home. Queen Elizabeth I famously presented special guests with gingerbread molded to look like them.
In some regions, the folks who created the molds and the gingerbread were elevated to a guild and making gingerbread was limited to only those who had received special training with few exceptions. Guilds were intended to control design and quality but also to control supply and demand. A few of the molds still survive in museums today. Among them, a carving of a sun to celebrate solstice.
In modern Germany, gingerbread goodies are still seen at fall festivals. Some are a mashup with conversation hearts and include a friendly or romantic expression on them such as, “you’re really super!”
The gingerbread house doesn’t have clear origins. It’s kind of a chicken egg thing with the folktales around Hansel and Gretel in the 1800s in Germany. At some point, around the time of the popularization of the story, a house was carved into some wood slabs, gingerbread was molded, and it was decorated and displayed. (As you are no doubt aware, record keeping was pretty hit-or-miss in the 1800s.) The practice was brought to the colonies by German immigrants. It is more popular in the United States than it is anywhere else.
Gingerbread is a wonderful tradition to add to winter celebrations. I host a gingerbread house party every year with some dear friends. The gingerbread recipe I use relies on molasses and cinnamon for its dark color and of course, ground ginger. As with any heavily spiced foods, it is best if the dough is allowed to sit for a few hours to let the flavors mingle. Another fun way to experience the spicy fragrancy is by making ornaments. You can make these with a traditional gingerbread dough or with something that will last a bit longer. I have made cinnamon + applesauce + glue dough a few times and used cookie cutters to make shapes for decorating. While I went for spring birds, there are lots of fun shapes that celebrate the coming spring.
Bold red stripes twisting on a white sugar background shaped with a hooked bend on one end is the quintessential candy cane design. Perfect for hanging on tree branches, stockings and nearly anything, their pure peppermint goodness is part of many winter memories. But where did they come from?
Let’s start with hard candy. Candy like candy canes falls into a candy category called hard candy. They all have the same basic origin – sugar dissolved in water is boiled until it reaches around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (148 Celsius). Flavoring is added and the candy is usually pulled to add air once it cools a bit. (The next time you bite into a candy cane, you may notice little tubes of air – that air is adding during pulling and makes the candy appear opaque and white.) The stripes are made from artificially colored candy that is added to the white candy. The canes are pulled, rather than extruded, while the candy is still hot. They are also cut and shaped.
Hard candy started as a medicine – the sweetness helped make herbal remedies that were not as tasty go down a little easier. Peppermint oil was used as a flavoring at least as far back as the mid-1700s. And as sugar became more widely available, non-medicinal candy became more common and could be made in the home. The first peppermint sticks that turned up in the early to mid-1800s were straight and did not have stripes. The bend emerged somewhere around mid-1800s but were not widespread until a machine was invented that could mass produce the curved sticks in the early 1900s.
One connection to religion that the candy cane can claim is the machine that led to mass production. A candy manufacturer named Bob McCormack made candy canes, among other things. His brother-in-law, Father Gregory Harding Keller, was a Catholic priest and inventor. He designed a machine that could twist the candy so the stripes would curve around the stick and a second machine that would cut and form the canes. This allowed candy canes to be mass produced with less waste and few broken candy canes.
Some legends about the history of the candy cane involve a choirmaster creating them to keep children quiet in church in the 1600s… or that the white color symbolizes the purity of Mary, the red symbolizes the blood of Jesus and the cane is either a shepherd’s crook or a letter J. There is no historical record that can substantiate these claims and more so, they did not get any circulation until the late 20th century.
Candy canes are fun addition to winter holidays. In our family, they are hung on the tree each year and we nibble on them Christmas morning while we open gifts.
Most of the foods and treats that are enjoyed during winter festivities don’t have religious origins and enjoying them can be fun for everyone. If you are looking to start some new traditions, maybe try making a Bouche de Noël which was briefly mentioned in Celebrating with Light. This is a dessert that seems to have evolved from the tradition of burning a Yule Log that somehow became a cake?! The origins are not completely clear but it sounds delicious! The most traditional version is a chocolate sponge cake roll filled with pastry cream and frosted with buttercream icing to look like a log. Mushrooms shaped out of meringue or marzipan are added and sometimes powdered sugar is used to add snow. Or, maybe gingerbread cookies, houses, or ornaments are a good fit for you. Candy canes are widely available as well. However you chose to celebrate, make it yours.
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