The Origins of Our Favourite Christmas Treats

December 17, 2021

Ottawa Journal (December 17 – December 21, 2021)

Christmas is here yet again. It’s truly a special and joyous time with the many celebrations and the tremendous spirit that emerges season. Part of what makes Christmas special is the delicious food. Many of us look forward to Christmas classics like eggnog, fruitcake, and of course, gingerbread. These foods have become beloved traditions; however, it’s interesting to know the unique origins of these treats and how they’ve evolved over time to become our Christmas favourites of today.

You always know the Christmas season is here when eggnog appears on the grocery shelves. It’s been said the term eggnog did not appear until the seventeenth century. Before that time, English recipes referred to “posset,” which was similar to the eggnog we know today. Posset was popular in the later Middle Ages and continued to be until the nineteenth century. It was a warm beverage of hot milk mixed with hot beer, sherry, sugar, and spices, which was consumed to keep warm. The origins of the term are uncertain, but a connection to the Latin word “posca,” has been suggested, which is defined as a drink made from water and vinegar. During the seventeenth century, sack (i.e. sweet sherry), claret, or orange juice were used in possets. Richer versions also included cream and eggs. It appears that from the eighteenth century onwards, the American term “eggnog” began to be used to refer to this classic, old English beverage.

Another popular Christmas treat and a classic symbol of Christmas is fruitcake. The history of combining dried fruits, honey, and nuts into a cake can be traced back as far as ancient times; however, there is general agreement that the classic fruitcake emerged in the Middle Ages. During this time, imported dried fruits and nuts were very expensive and as a result, were saved for special occasions. Alcohol was also used as both a preservative and to add flavor to the treat. It has been said that in Britain, the fruitcake has been popular for celebrations since the eighteenth century.

Gingerbread is another immensely popular treat at Christmas. It has been said that its origins date back to the thirteenth century word “gingerbras,” which was borrowed from Old French meaning “preserved ginger.” However, by the mid-fourteenth century, “bread” started to replace “bras.” Recipes for gingerbread have been traced as far back as the early fifteenth century, where breadcrumbs boiled with honey, ginger, and other spices were listed, creating the cake-like form of the treat.

It has been said that the first gingerbread man can be attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave important visitors gingerbread likenesses of themselves. After the release of Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel in the nineteenth century, German bakeries began making gingerbread houses, as well as gingerbread Christmas cards and intricately detailed molded cookies. It was during this time that tinsmiths began shaping tin into cookie cutters of various shapes and gingerbread men were hung on trees.

Eggnog, fruitcake, gingerbread, are just a few of the many delicious Christmas treats that make this season special for each of us. However, there are many who are unable enjoy these treats and other joys of Christmas that we often take for granted. I encourage you to get involved in neighbourhood food banks and meal/food programs, to ensure those in need in our community receive the support they need, so they too, can enjoy the wonder and joy of this holiday season.