The History of Christmas Treats

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By Donovan Darling, Staff Writer

German choir boys, Egyptian pharaohs, the Brothers Grimm, and Queen Elizabeth I all shaped our Christmas treats and their storied past.

Decorate your Christmas tree, stir your hot cocoa, or eat a classic treat, because candy canes are the most versatile and best-selling non-chocolate candy during December, with almost 2 billion produced every year. But did you know that candy canes were likely invented for fidgety German choirboys?

Data suggests the candy cane goes back to 1670 when the Cologne Cathedral choirmaster in Germany needed to quiet down his choir boys during the Living Creche ceremony (live nativity scene). Carly Schildhaus of the National Confectioners Association says “[he] handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet.” It’s rumored the church elders were upset because sweets were inappropriate in church, so the choirmaster shaped the sugar sticks into shepherd crooks (like the nativity scene) to appease the church elders. This could be a coincidence, however, as candy canes were likely hung on Christmas trees during this time, along with fruit and cookies.

Interestingly, candy canes used to be only white for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 20th century and the advent of mass production that the iconic red-striped peppermint candy cane came into existence.

According to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Germanic mythology, honey was a gift of the gods with the power to heal, give life, and banish demons. Gingerbread, in its early form as spiced honey bread, was found in pharaohs’ tombs dating to 1500 BC. Later, a more modern gingerbread appeared in 11th-century Europe when the Crusaders brought ginger back from the Middle East. Once ginger became more affordable, gingerbread gained popularity.

And I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldn’t have it to buy gingerbread.

William Shakespeare

Early European recipes for gingerbread called for ginger, sugar, rosewater, stale breadcrumbs, and ground almonds, which were mashed into a paste and pressed into wooden molds. These work-of-art molds made a storyboard that told the major news and took the shapes of kings, queens, emperors, and more. Cookies were sometimes decorated with edible gold or flat white icing.

In 16th century England, flour replaced stale breadcrumbs, and sweeteners and eggs were added. Incredibly, Queen Elizabeth I is credited for creating the first gingerbread man, which shocked visiting dignitaries who were given cookies made in their likeness. At fairs, gingerbread was tied with a ribbon and exchanged as a token of love. The gingerbread house gained popularity in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their fairy tales, including “Hansel and Gretel,” in the 19th century. Later, German immigrants brought this lebkuchenhaeusle to America.

Today, gingerbread is often made with ginger, anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweetened with honey, corn syrup, brown sugar, or molasses. It comes in many forms, such as gingerbread people, houses, ginger snaps, and more. So when you’re munching on a gingerbread man or hanging candy canes on your Christmas tree, remember the countless individuals who quite literally shaped these fascinating treats!