The Real Story Behind Candy Canes, Fruitcake and Kissing Under the Mistletoe
by Kaitlyn Culpepper
Ever wonder how certain holiday traditions came to be? Well, you’re about to get a few fun stories to share with your friends when you throw that ugly Christmas sweater party or host a cookie exchange.
Plenty of straightforward and frankly boring explanations can be found online, from how evergreen trees were brought into churches for the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia to how gingerbread houses evolved throughout Europe. It takes a little extra digging, however, to uncover some of the more strange and intriguing origin stories. Three examples of this would be the story behind mistletoe, fruitcake, and candy canes.
If you’ve ever been to a concert, movie, play, or anything of the sort with a little kid, then you know it can be pretty hard to get them to be quiet and pay attention. It turns out that candy canes were actually invented as a possible solution to that problem. Kids didn’t know how to shush up back in the 1600s either, and so the treats were made to look like shepherds’ crooks and given to children to keep them quiet at Nativity scene events. This started at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany and spread from there.
Fruitcake has been around for even longer time than candy canes, and certainly was not always the infamous, mocked dessert it has become in the U.S. Some form of it has been around since the time of the Roman crusades, and it really began to pick up in popularity when dried fruits were introduced to the British from the Mediterranean in the 1400s. The fun didn’t really start until the early 18th century, however, when fruitcake was made illegal throughout all of Continental Europe because they were “sinfully rich.” That may sound strange, but what is even odder is how Queen Victoria in the late 1800s received a fruitcake and waited a year to eat it in order to prove her patience, as it was considered just that tempting. It was the tradition in England around that time as well for unmarried guests at a wedding to put a slice of dark fruitcake beneath their pillow so that they would dream of who they would one day marry.
The idea of kissing under the mistletoe is linked to the festival of Saturnalia like the Christmas tree is, but has a more interesting reason behind it. Two main beliefs led to the practice: that the plant granted fertility and that the manure which it grew in had life-giving power. The English created what was called a kissing ball in the 1700s around this concept. These were held at Christmas time, with mistletoe hanging and ornamented with ribbons or evergreen about the room. A young woman standing under such decoration could not refuse a kiss, and such a kiss stood for either a deep love or lifetime friendship. If a lady had not been kissed by the end of the ball, it was said that she’d be married the following year. At one point in Scandinavia, mistletoe was known as a plant of peace where enemies could call a truce or a fighting couple could kiss and make-up under.
Whether you see these origin stories as interesting to share or not, with a little research, it certainly turns out many of our Christmas customs are not nearly as silly and random as one might think!