Why Are Candy Canes Shaped Like That? And 15 Other Holiday Food Mysteries, Solved

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Candy canes, which nowadays come in plenty of flavors far crazier than peppermint, are the treat most synonymous with the holidays. But why are they hook-shaped? According to the National Confectioner's Association, back in 1670, the Cologne Cathedral choirmaster handed out sugar sticks to the young singers in order to keep them quiet during a long nativity ceremony. He bent them into the shape of a shepherd's crook to honor the occasion. So candy canes have been tied to Christmas literally since their invention, but they didn't gain their stripes and minty flavor until the 20th century.

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What are sugarplums?

Visions of sugarplums may be dancing in children's heads, but what are they actually visualizing? If you think they're just a variety of plum, think again. Historically, sugarplums are actually a seed or nut surrounded by hardened sugar, similar to Jordan almonds. They're also the term for finely diced dried fruit mixed with nuts, honey and spices like fennel and anise, which are then shaped into a ball and rolled in sugar.

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Why are fruitcakes immortal?

Is that fruitcake in the back of the pantry from last year's Christmas, or from two years ago? It doesn't really matter, because these edible punchlines last more or less forever. The dryness of the ingredients and the traditional addition of alcohol both inhibit microbial growth and act as excellent preservatives.

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What is figgy pudding?

Now bring us some figgy pudding, but only after you explain to us what exactly it is, because it sounds rather odd. It uses the British definition of "pudding," meaning any dessert (be it actual pudding, cake, pie or other sweet) and is essentially a dense cake made with molasses, nuts, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and lots of finely chopped dried figs.

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What is mincemeat?

Mince pie is a traditional British Christmas dessert, and the filling is traditionally called mincemeat. While in the past (its roots can be traced to the 13th century), it was traditionally a combination of finely minced meat (usually mutton) mixed with fruits and served as a main course, today just about every variation is meat-free. It's made with dried fruits and spices including clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as brandy and served as dessert.

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What does a buche de Noel have to do with Christmas?

The buche de Noel is a dessert that's closely associated with Christmas, but it's just a cake that's rolled up to look like a log. So what does a log have to do with Christmas? It's intended to represent the yule log, which comes from a pagan ritual of selecting and burning a piece of wood to celebrate health and wealth as the seasons change. This tradition was rolled into Christmas festivities as the holiday emerged in the fourth century and has been a part of it ever since.

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Why do we leave cookies out for Santa?

It makes sense to leave snacks out for Santa on Christmas Eve - he's bound to get hungry during his journey, after all - but why milk and cookies? The tradition dates back to the 1930s. It began as a way for parents to show their children that even during a time of belt-tightening, it was still important to be generous and show thanks for the gifts you've been given. There's also no shortage of tasty Christmas cookies around this time of year, so you might as well leave a few for the big man.

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Why do Italians eat panettone on Christmas?

Panettone is a sweet, eggy, light and fluffy Italian bread that's best known for being very tall and studded with dried fruits. It's a Christmas tradition to eat panettone throughout all of Italy, but it's especially popular in Milan, where it's reputed to have been invented. There are a few competing theories behind its creation (one attributes its creation to a cook in the employ of a nobleman named Ludovico il Moro on Christmas Eve; another claims that it was invented by a nobleman who disguised himself as a baker's boy in order to win the baker's daughter's heart). In reality, however, the loaf was flatter and more compact until the modern recipe was developed in 1919 by a Milanese baker named Angelo Motta. The once-expensive ingredients and amount of time required to prepare the bread make it an ideal special-occasion treat, so it's an obvious choice for Christmas.

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Why do we drink eggnog?

Eggnog can be traced back to medieval Britain. It's derived from posset, a dessert or drink made with milk, sherry and sugar. As these ingredients were relatively expensive, the drink was often used to toast health and prosperity, making it ideal for Christmas. In the 1700s, the drink was imported to the colonies, where eggs, milk and rum were plentiful, and by the end of the century, eggnog had caught on as a festive Christmastime drink.

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Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?

Jewish folks going out for Chinese food on Christmas may be a cliche, but it's not exactly inaccurate. There are a few reasons behind this annual tradition. First, Jewish and Chinese immigrants lived very closely together on New York's Lower East Side, and because neither celebrated the holiday, it only made sense for them to spend it together. Second, Chinese food is generally a safe choice for kosher Jews, because Chinese cooking rarely includes dairy, and Jewish law forbids mixing dairy and meat. And third, Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day, when many others (except for some chain restaurants) are closed.

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Can you actually roast chestnuts on an open fire?

Nat King Cole famously sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but nowadays if we're going to make chestnuts at home we usually just stick them in the oven. However, you can certainly still roast them over an open fire if you really want to, you just need to do it carefully. Just score them with a knife, soak them in water for a couple minutes, put them in a cast-iron pan and stick the pan right on top of the embers as the fire starts to die down, cooking for about 25 minutes total and giving them a shake or turn every five minutes, making sure they don't burn. Specially made chestnut roasters, which have holes and a long handle, also accomplish the job admirably.

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What's the deal with the Christmas tree pickle?

If you're not hanging a pickle ornament on your Christmas tree, it's time to start. Plenty of folks do it (tradition holds that the pickle should be the last ornament hung, and whoever is the first to find the pickle on Christmas morning will have good luck for the following year) but not many actually know where the tradition came from. It's commonly believed that the tradition is German in origin, but a survey revealed that barely any Germans are even aware of it; the head of a German glassblowing firm in the region where glass ornaments were invented first learned of it in the 1990s, in Michigan, of all places. So while its beginnings might be a little nebulous, it's just one of those Christmas curiosities.

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Why is eating KFC on Christmas so popular in Japan?

You might not have known it before now, but in Japan, visiting KFC on Christmas is a huge deal. According to the BBC, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese people dine at KFC during the Christmas season (a tenfold uptick from the rest of the year), special Christmas dinners need to be ordered weeks in advance and on Christmas Day, KFCs have lines out the door. The reason that this has become a Christmas tradition there? Marketing. In 1970, Takeshi Okawara, who'd recently opened the country's first KFC, decided to sell a "party barrel" on Christmas in order to drum up business. It proved to be so popular that in 1974, the idea went national, and the rest is history.

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What's the deal with gingerbread?

Gingerbread, and cookies and houses made from it, are a quintessential holiday food. But what relationship do they have with each other? It all goes back to the Middle Ages, apparently, when ginger and other associated spices were very expensive. For this reason, ginger-based bread was considered an expensive luxury and only baked for special occasions - of which Christmas was a major one.

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What's the difference between hot chocolate and hot cocoa?

Hey, it's cold out - how about a nice cup of hot chocolate? Or would you rather have some hot cocoa instead? They're used interchangeably, but they're in fact not the same. Hot chocolate is made with chopped high-quality chocolate that's melted into hot water or milk. Hot cocoa starts with cocoa powder, which is dissolved with sugar into hot milk or water.

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Why are potato latkes eaten on Hanukkah?

To understand why potato latkes are a traditional Hanukkah food, you need to know a little about the story behind the holiday. Among other things, Hanukkah celebrates a miracle in which one night's supply of lamp oil burned for eight; for this reason, foods cooked in oil (including latkes and jelly doughnuts) are traditionally eaten during the holiday. It's also the reason why the holiday is eight nights long. But while latkes and jelly doughnuts may be the best-known of all Hanukkah foods, they're just the tip of the iceberg.

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