America is a nation made up of immigrants, and we bring important parts of our heritage to the table in ways we may not even notice. The nation can’t claim responsibility for all of its customs. Apple pie, blue jeans, fireworks and hot dogs were all invented by non-Americans; even democracy is rooted all the way back to ancient Greece.
The same is true for much of our customary holiday fare. While you may think the “traditional” spread typically comes from early American settlers or colonial customs, you might be surprised to see just how many of our rituals are borrowed from other cultures around the world. We’ve traced back the history of some of the most popular dishes, drinks and treats served around the holidays.
Pumpkins were first brought to Europe from Central America around the 16th century. Eventually, pumpkins were harvested in England and widely used in pies, though these may not have been in the familiar form we know today. Some pies were made without crusts, while others featured a roasted, hollowed pumpkin as the crust-like exterior. As the early New England colonies developed into America, pumpkins grew in popularity. In 1929, canned pumpkin became a mainstay in American culture, which prevented bakers from having to hollow out their own pumpkins for dishes, pies and treats.1
In ancient Rome, the earliest known form of fruitcake derived from an energy bar-type food made of pine nuts, barley mash, raisins, honey wine, pomegranate seeds and other ingredients to help sustain soldiers in battle. The sugar combined with dried, preserved or candied fruits and some sort of alcohol work to preserve the ingredients, so a fruitcake can remain edible for months (or even years) after it’s baked. Eventually in the Middle Ages, dried fruit became more common and was included in cakes and breads. Other European variations of this dense, fruity cake include plum pudding, stollen and panettone.2 While it’s unclear how fruitcake became associated with Christmas, some believe that the time-intensive process of making the confection is the reason that it’s typically reserved for the winter holiday.
This festive drink has medieval roots dating back from England in the 14th century with an eggless version called posset. The hot cocktail was made from curdled hot milk, spices and alcohol. Eggs were eventually included in posset recipes over time. However, the ingredients became pricey for most people, and the hot curdled drink was reserved for the wealthy. In America, however, more people had access to local dairy, including their own cattle, so the drink became popular in the early colonies. Interestingly, eggnog is still more accepted in America than it is in its country of origin.3
This hotly debated candy history may have origins that date back to Germany in the 1600’s. Some believe that a boy’s choirmaster gave children the once plain-white candy to keep them quiet and to stop them from fidgeting during a church ceremony. To mark the special religious occasion, the sticks were bent into shapes that looked like shepherds’ hooks used to herd sheep. In 1847, a German immigrant living in Ohio was the first known person to associate the candy with a Christmas tree when he decorated his creation with candy canes, cookies and paper chains. A few decades later, red stripes became ubiquitous when the candy manufacturer Bob’s Candies refined the manufacturing process.4
Though it’s unclear exactly when the gingerbread cake we know and love first appeared, ginger spice was exported from islands in Southeast Asia as early as the first century AD. Ginger-flavored cakes made their way to Western Europe around the 11th century, where gingerbread fairs eventually took place. Gingerbread was seen as a symbol of good luck, and was often exchanged in good graces.
Perhaps the most significant early use of gingerbread men may come from Queen Elizabeth I, when she provided gingerbread men to her court in the likeness of her own visitors. The candied and decorated gingerbread house originates from Germany with the Brothers Grimm story “Hansel and Gretel.”5
One of the earliest known cookbooks is believed to be written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an ancient Roman chef named Apicius. In it, he describes the process of cooking birds with stuffing inside, but he also includes other stuffed animals, like pigs, hares and chickens. While it’s unclear if Apicius actually invented the premise of a stuffed dish, he may well have been the first person to commit his stuffing recipes to paper.6
1Barksdale, N. (August 31, 2018). The history of pumpkin pie. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-pumpkin-pie
2Levine, S. (December 16, 2016). Why do we eat fruitcake? The history of this holiday confection goes back a long way. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://www.bustle.com/articles/200651-why-do-we-eat-fruitcake-at-christmas-the-history-of-this-holiday-confection-goes-back-a
3Trex, E. (December 14, 2015). A brief history of eggnog. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/26537/way-more-you-ever-wanted-know-about-eggnog
4Candy History. The history of candy cane. (2019). Retrieved November 20, 2019, from http://www.candyhistory.net/candy-origin/candy-cane-history/
5Rolek, B. (November 10, 2019). How gingerbread became a beloved holiday symbol. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://www.thespruceeats.com/the-history-of-gingerbread-1135954
6Harvard University. (2019). LET’S EAT! Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/artoffood/letseat