Holiday Food History

We all have our favorite holiday treats and traditions, but where exactly did these iconic holiday tropes begin? How did they evolve into the things that make this season so special?

The Just For Kicks team is a festive bunch, so we took a deep dive into the history of the holiday season, from candy canes to the man with the bag himself. 

While Huffington Post is quoted as calling fruitcake, “the most hated cake in the existence of baking,” it didn’t start out that way. The earliest examples of fruitcake can be found in Ancient Rome, where satura, a dessert made of pomegranate, raisin, pine nut and barley mash, was a common snack for Roman soldiers.

In the early 20th century, Hostess began making fruitcakes sold in elaborately decorated tins. Unfortunately, the company no longer makes them, but many fondly remember these packaged goods—the Smithsonian even has a tin in their collection! While fruitcake is less popular today, Mountain Dew bringing the classic flavor back with their limited edition “Fruit Quake”—available at several major retailers. If you’re willing to give fruitcake another try, consider some of these recipes to shake up the traditional dish. 

Whether you prefer homemade or store-bought, any Christmas lover knows the importance of a well-decorated gingerbread house. Gingerbread first appeared in Europe in the 11th century when ginger from the Middle East made its way to Western Europe. The treat was so beloved, even Shakespeare’s mid-1590’s play, Love Labour’s Lost, features the line, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.”

It wasn’t until 19th century Germany that the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel inspired decorating gingerbread houses, and the popular holiday activity was born. This year, if you’re looking for a solid foundation, you can try these highly-rated kits and pay homage to the rich history of this rich dessert.

Candy canes are an iconic Christmas treat, and you can find them in dozens of flavors in just about every store, but just where did these sweets originate? One theory claims that in 1670 a German choral director gave the choirboys sugar sticks to keep them quiet during the church service. The hook was meant to represent a shepherd’s staff, so the candies were more appropriately themed to the religious ceremonies.

The classic red stripes and peppermint flavoring weren’t added until the 20th century, when a Georgia-based company named Bob’s Candies first mass-produced candy canes. Those original ones are a far cry from the wild flavors you can find at Archie McPhee’s today!

Many of us use “hot chocolate” and “hot cocoa” interchangeably, but there’s a difference between the two. Hot chocolate is made with melted chocolate, while hot cocoa is made using cocoa powder. These beverages are a great way to warm up on a cold winter day, but their predecessors weren’t quite as comforting. As early as 500 BCE, Mayans made a beverage of ground cocoa seeds, water, chili peppers and cornmeal—served cold. In the 1400s, Aztec warriors drank chocolate beverages (still cold) in their rations.

During the 18th century, the chocolatey drink grew in popularity across Europe—but served heated and with milk. The modern form of hot chocolate was all stirred up. It became so popular that drinking chocolate houses (think coffee shops, but just for hot chocolate) popped up across Europe (London had over 700 at one point!).

It wasn’t until the 1820s that cocoa powder was created by Dutch inventor, C. J. Van Houten. Now, hot cocoa is more prevalent because it is much easier to make at home. More recently, Eric Torres Garcia changed the game by creating Cocoa Bombs, which combine the melting chocolate with the cocoa powder, adding a fun visual and interaction to the drink. Say, bombs away!

When most people think of Christmas, they think of Santa Claus. But the Santa you’re picturing—the big belly, red coat and white beard—wasn’t always what Kris Kringle looked like. For most of history, there was no definitive “look” for Santa—some cultures depicted him as an elf, a lanky man, or an older, rounder man akin to modern Santa.

In 1931, Coca Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint images of Santa for an advertisement. Sundblom took inspiration for his painting from Clement Clarke Moore’s story, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and depicted the big man as “chubby and plump” with a beard “as white as the snow.” These images first debuted in The Saturday Evening Post. The public loved this rendition so much that it quickly became the standard. This year, you can catch Santa in an ad for Milano, where he can be seen enjoying his preferred snack—cookies. 

For the Just For Kicks team, the Starbucks holiday cups are just as important of a tradition as any. Nowadays, we know it’s that time of year when we start seeing the red cups popping up; but the holiday cups weren’t always red. The first holiday cups came out in 1997 and were a vibrant magenta color with hand-drawn holiday foliage and coffee beans; it wasn’t until 1999 that the holiday cups were released with that signature red that we know and love.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the cups were adorned with holiday illustrations. Then in 2015, the red cups drew some negative attention for their more plain, ombré red design wasn’t as festive as in years past. Fear not, though. In the years following, Starbucks returned to the more illustrative designs and shows no signs of slowing down. See their holiday menu and this year’s festive cups here.

Courtesy of the Esrock Partners “Just for Kicks” Team: Travis Fish, Lucy Staszel, Samantha Gallagher, Aleksandra Kostic, Shawn Rudolph, Karolina Urbas, Morgan Behrens, Logan Scott, Julia Para & Ella Shirk

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