As an Australian, I'm relatively new to the concept of traditional "Christmas food." In fact, the only part of the whole, traditional, holiday feast that I actually enjoy are the brussels sprouts, which I've been told makes me a weirdo. Recently, however, I've discovered that my aversion to most traditional Christmas food really isn't such a weird thing. If you research the history of your favorite Christmas foods, you'll find that some of their historical associations are far less innocent than the iconic Rockwell image of a charming family smiling in unison around the dinner table.
You may already know that turkey isn't actually history's bird of choice for Holiday feasts. As you've probably noticed in the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the real favorite tended to be a goose or some other fattened bird. There's also a famous Sherlock Holmes story in which a lost Christmas goose turns out to have a blue sapphire mysteriously stuck in its stomach. But beyond this simple misunderstanding, there are certain Christmas goodies with deeper, darker, more unpleasant histories.
So if your holiday dinner conversation becomes painfully boring, or uncomfortably controversial, quickly bring up the Eggnog Riot or gingerbread seduction and see if it defuses the situation. Here's the weird history of four popular Christmas foods.
Eggnog Caused A Military Riot
Eggnog is one of the more controversial of Christmas foods. But the drink itself is a long-standing tradition. The name may come from the word "noggin," an early-1600s word that originally meant "wooden cup" and now, for obscure reasons, means "head." It's been around since at least the 13th century, but its most spectacular moment came in 1826 when it got 21 soldiers court-martialled.
The Eggnog Riot, as it's now called, occurred at the famous West Point military barracks on the 24th and 25th of December 1826. Cadets had smuggled gallons of whisky into the barracks to create eggnog for the Christmas party, which began with eight drunk cadets and finished with a mutiny, broken windows, and a court-martial trial that called on 167 different witnesses to the chaos.
It was, essentially, a frat party gone horribly wrong. Incidentally, Jefferson Davis, (who went on to become the president of The Confederacy during the American Civil War) was one of the participants.
Christmas Pudding Was Originally A Devil's Coffin
There are two parts to this story. One is that the tradition of today's British plum pudding began its life, as historian Maggie Black told History Today , as a medieval "coffin" pie. The "coffin" was the outer shell, made of inedible hard flour and gum, and the pie filling was meat of some kind preserved with dried fruit and butter. Coffin pies eventually evolved into today's pudding, as sugar became cheaper and meat became safer to consume. They're called "plum puddings" not because they contain plums, but because "plum" was a general term for any kind of dried fruit.
The devilish part? That comes from the long-standing myth that Oliver Cromwell, in a fit of anti-Catholic religious zeal, banned Christmas pudding when he ruled England. The Quakers in particular called the pudding concept "the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon." (Incidentally, the holly on top is supposed to stand for Jesus's crown of thorns, and you're supposed to stir from East to West to imitate the journey of the Magi.)
Young Women Ate Gingerbread Men To Attract Husbands
It turns out that the history of gingerbread, from opulent gingerbread houses to sugared gingerbread men, is actually more salacious than it appears. Gingerbread was introduced to Europe from Asia, likely in the 11th century by monks or religious travelers (one possible candidate is Saint Gregory of Nicopolis). And it was viewed as powerful stuff. Specialist gingerbread makers formed religious icons out of it for the wealthy, and in the 17th century, young noble ladies gave out gingerbread favors and ate gingerbread men to increase their luck at nabbing a husband.
Gingerbread also has a weirdly political history. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II distributed gingerbread men of himself as a kind of publicity stunt in 15th century Europe, which is basically genius when you think about it. It's the equivalent of a political television ad in a culture where almost nobody could read, with the added bonus of a serious sugar buzz. Elizabeth I did it too, as a gift for important visitors to her court.
All I can say is, I want a Hillary 2016 gingerbread person, like yesterday.
Candy Canes May Have Been Invented To Shut Children Up
There are several origin stories for candy canes. One of them, weirdly enough, claims they were "invented" by a Christian candy-maker in Indiana in the 1900s, with the white standing for Christ and the red for blood shed on the Cross. This, sadly for Indiana, didn't actually happen. It seems that, like a lot of Christmas foods and traditions, they originally popped up in Germany, but we're not sure why.
Another legend says that, around 1670, the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany adapted some hard candy for children in his choir who were finding it difficult to keep quiet during long Christmas services. This is probably nonsense, but it does seem to be true that the candy cane came out of Germany — and it has been effectively keeping kids quiet for centuries.