We come to expect the same foods each year as Christmas rolls around and the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without them. Of course, each family has their own special holiday food traditions. But, many of these traditional foods date back centuries. Following is a little trivia about some common Christmas foods.


We come to expect the same foods each year as Christmas rolls around and the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without them. Of course, each family has their own special holiday food traditions. But, many of these traditional foods date back centuries. Following is a little trivia about some common Christmas foods.
Candy canes:
Candy canes date back at least 350 years. Originally, they were all white. Legend has it that priests made these candy sticks, bent them to resemble a shepherd’s staff, and gave them to children to help them sit quietly through the long Christmas service. It wasn’t until after 1900 that the familiar red stripes began appearing on candy canes. Candy canes were still handmade until the automation process was invented in the 1950s in the United States. Candy canes still represent Christmas to all who see them.
Fruitcake:
Although fruitcake is the topic of many modern Christmas jokes, it actually dates to the middle ages. It seems that these dense cakes made of nuts, seeds and dried fruits were a staple of ancient warriors and hunters because of the cake’s portability and long shelf life, as well as being a great energy source. Fruitcake was often made around Christmas time to celebrate the harvest. Then, the fruitcake would be stored and eaten the next year. A typical fruitcake weighs about two pounds and can last for months at room temperature. It’s been estimated that a fruitcake will be edible for 25 years if stored in a tin or wrapped tightly. An estimated 47 percent of people who receive a fruitcake for a gift will throw it away, 11 percent will re-gift it, and I guess the rest eat it. In 2005, the fruitcake was officially listed as a national security threat and airline passengers were banned from bringing them as carry-on. That’s because the fruitcake is too dense for the X-ray machines to see what may be hidden inside.
Mince Pies:
Originally, mince pies were a way for people to preserve meat without refrigeration in the winter months and without salting or smoking. The pies could be kept for as long as two months and the mincemeat itself even longer. Mincemeat pie was considered a main dish. Today’s mincemeat pies typically do not contain meat, but is still associated with winter and the holidays.
Eggnog:
Although it’s been around for centuries in other countries, eggnog became popular in America because of the abundance of milk and eggs from rural areas. The addition of rum, brandy or bourbon made it a festive drink. It’s typically only consumed around the holidays because who wants to drink a thick, eggy custard in the summer? Beware of the calories, though. Just 4 ounces of commercially prepared eggnog has around 170 calories and 10 grams of fat. And, that’s before you add any alcohol.
Christmas Cookies:
Who doesn’t love Christmas cookies? It’s a great way to get the kids involved in a Christmas tradition of baking and decorating cookies. Originally, Christmas cookies were cut in shapes, decorated and used as tree ornaments. In the 1930s, it became popular for kids to leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk out for Santa.
Fudge:
This is one of the few purely American inventions. It seems it was made by accident in the late 1880s by a woman who was trying to make caramels and either botched the recipe or overcooked them. She was able to duplicate the results and the recipe spread quickly through women’s colleges of the time and has since become one of our traditional Christmas treats.
Gingerbread:
Gingerbread was originally made using stale bread crumbs, honey and heavy spices. I suspect it was a way to be thrifty and not waste any food. Frequently, the gingerbread was cut into shapes and used for ornaments. With the popularity of the Grimm Brothers story of Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread houses started to appear. Today, there are contests around the holidays to see who can build the most elaborate gingerbread house.
Whatever your holiday food traditions are, I hope you continue to pass them down to your kids and grandkids. Wishing everyone a happy, healthy holiday!

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.