Journal Opinion Dec 15, 2021
We are in the season of sweet tooth cravings! For many, Christmas sweets are a significant part of the memories of years past. They, like the gifts and traditional foods, reflect the bounteous joy of the season.
This column describes how some sweets become traditional holiday treats. Stories submitted by area residents, internet sites, and newspaper archives provided background.
This is the fifth in a series on the history of the holiday season. For those interested, the following can be found by using the search feature at “In Times Past” larrycoffin.blogspot.com. Christmas Memories 1659-1959; Cooking Up a Christmas Storm; The Best Christmas Gift Ever and Old New Year’s Ways.
The much-maligned fruit cake is one of the oldest examples of sweets connected to the holiday season. The tradition of giving cakes made with dried fruit and seeds goes back to a Roman winter festival.
Immigrants from European nations brought their versions of holiday fruit cakes to the New World. The English style of dark cake, the Italian panettone, Scottish Dundee cake, and the German stollen are just four Christmas cakes. Before 1900, these cakes were considered both a luxury and a way of preserving expensive ingredients.
It was the English version that Bradford’s United Opinion was referring to in 1888: “Good fruit cake, like fine wine, grows better with age; the cake concocted before Christmas so far from deteriorating, will become richer and more melting as it and the holiday season together draws to a close.”
In the early 1900s, ingredients were more accessible, and fruit cakes were mass- produced. As the quality was reduced, one source referred to them as a “dry lump of disappointment.”
Some love fruit cake and others pass it up. Bradford’s Penny Perryman shared that her mother made fruit cakes to great reviews. She mentioned that she was “very confused as I got older and heard jokes” about fruit cake.
Other traditional holiday cakes included the alcohol-laden tipsy cake, the torte-fruit Christmas cake, and the nutty New Year’s Cake. In 1876, the Bradford Opinion mentioned eating the latter ensured happiness in the new year.
Akin to these cakes were the traditional holiday baked or boiled puddings. Stir-up Sunday was a day in the late fall when puddings were boiled and put away “to mellow and ripen.” The term plum was a generic term for dried fruits. For some families, plum pudding was as “important to Christmas as the lights in the tree.”
Figgy puddings are better known as Christmas puddings in America. In 1888, Bradford’s United Opinion featured a recipe made from suet, raisins, currants, and citron and steamed for five to eight hours. Carolers asking for a figgy pudding is mentioned in the 1939 carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Christmas pies were standard desserts for the holidays. One Vermont editor ranked mince pie as the top standard Christmas dessert. Another suggested all any man needed for Christmas was a mince pie and a new pair of slippers. Mince pies are made from apples, raisins and suet, although there is also a recipe for green tomato mincemeat. Preparations were often made well in advance.
While apple pie is a favorite dessert for Christmas, pumpkin is not far behind. At least three favorite Christmas carols link pumpkin pie with the happiness of home and holiday celebrations. Some sweet enthusiasts list raspberry, cherry or pecan pie as their favorite Christmas dessert memory.
The holiday would not be complete without cookies. A recipe for Christmas cookies was included in the first American cookbook published in 1796. Coriander sugar cookies could be made six months beforehand and stored in earthenware jars in the cellar.
In the late 19th century, cookie cutters became available, and cookies were made in the shape of bells, stars, and reindeer. Gingerbread cookies had been baked before, but now they were created in shapes such as decorated men, dogs, and horses. Some were eaten, while others became Christmas tree decorations.
In the 1930s, children began leaving cookies and milk for Santa. About that same time, Christmas cookie exchanges became popular.
Bakeries and stores also offered cookies for Christmas. A 1932 ad for Darling’s store in Fairlee featured Sunshine Cabinet Cookies for “Kiddies’ Xmas Tree” That edition of Bradford’s United Opinion reflected the economic hardships by encouraging its readers to “make [their] dollars count.” It added, “Don’t let adult cares be reflected in Children’s Christmas happiness.”
Fairlee’s Marjorie Green recalled the wonderful ginger St. Nicholas-shaped decorated cookies made around 1948 by her local New Jersey bakery. Buying several was a holiday treat. She said she has tried to duplicate these cookies in Vermont.
The Bradford Public Library currently has a display of wooden molds used in the making of Springeles, a traditional Christmas cookie of Europe’s German-speaking region. These molds have been collected by Anita Fahrni of West Newbury and will be on display for the next month.
I received several emails from area residents that spoke of the role of candy in their Christmas memories. For them, “visions of sugar plums” did actually dance in their heads.
Sugar plums are pieces of candy made with hardened sugar in a small round shape. Plum refers to the shape. They can be made with dried fruit, nuts and spices. In 1802, Confectioner Stephen Delaney of Portsmouth offered commercially made sugar plums. In the mid-19th century, sugar plums were often used as tree decorations.
Clyde Watson of Etna recalled her older sister making sugar plums from large red grapes dipped in egg whites and sugar and used as decorations.
Other candy associated with the holidays included homemade fudge, peanut brittle, molasses taffy, maple candy, and bourbon balls. Charlotte Williams of Fairlee recalled a late 1950s memory of family- made bourbon balls. She described them “as a not-too-sweet mix of baking cocoa, a little flour, a little sugar, and plenty of chopped walnuts.” Doled out on Christmas morning for “a delightful sweet/bitter bite, and what a lovely fiery warmth in the pit of my tummy afterward!”
Several recalled commercially-made candy, including Peach Blossoms. The New England Confectionery Company of Revere, Massachusetts, made these peanut butter candies wrapped in a crunchy shell.
Florence Welch of Newbury said her mom would always purchase a can of Peach Blossoms, even on a tight budget. Patsy Belknap of Bradford said her mom’s first present for her dad every Christmas was a can of the candy. “He savored them well into the New Year.” She said.
Ribbon candy was another popular choice. This sticky wavy candy was made for years by hand by formed strips around the maker’s thumb. In 1886, dentist Dr. P. B. Laskey, a Massachusetts inventor, patented a mechanical candy crimper.
Candy canes are the number one non-chocolate holiday candy. Many of them are purchased first as tree decorations. These sugar sticks were introduced into America around 1847. Until they were made by machine, they were entirely white.
Living in a candy store may be a dream for some kids, but “it’s lots of work,” said 89-year old Phidias Dantos of Hanover. He was born into a family that operated a general store in Andover, Massachusetts. When they made their annual supply of Christmas candies, it was “full gear ahead” for all.
Dantos recalled how the candy room had to be refurbished before beginning the production. He described how they made ribbon candy by preparing the sugar mixture in large copper kettles. They used up to 1000 pounds of sugar annually.
Wearing heavy gloves, they poured the hot candy slurry onto a large marble-covered bench. After passing through a machine his father had made, it was curled by hand. Broken pieces were saved to be made into peanut brittle.
They also produced candy canes. When his father died in 1952, Dantos worked alongside his Uncle Pete until 1960. He said in the 60 years since, he has only enjoyed ribbon candy once.
Donna Garone of Orford said her favorite memory about Christmas sweets was tied to the candy display at Hill’s Five & Ten in Bradford. To great joy, her Dad brought home chocolate covered peanuts, malted milk balls and non-pareil. She carried that tradition until Hill’s no longer sold penny candy.
At festive events such as school or church programs, Santa distributed small boxes of hard candy and candy canes. His appearance was a highly anticipated event and usually occurred at the conclusion of the program.
I am told by my Jewish connections that a few sweets are specifically connected to the Jewish winter festival of Hanukkah. The most specific is chocolate gelts. These are foil wrapped candy coins given as presents, especially to children. They are often used in conjunction with the Hanukkah game of dreidel.
Jewish families might also enjoy the following sufganiyot (jelly donuts), hamantaschen (small filled cookies), and halvah (sesame fudge-like candy). These, along with sugar or honey cookies in the shape of stars or dreidels, cheesecake, and filled chocolates, might be purchased or made at home.
Wars had a significant impact on Christmas sweets. During the Civil War, men received boxes of candy, cookies, and warm socks. In 1862, George Benedict of the 12th Vermont Regiment wrote in his diary about boxes of goodies including “raisins, apples and coco-nut cake just sent from home.” He went on, “some soldiers received no special treats.”
Similar packages of homemade goodies were sent to troops in France during World War I. Companies created special packages containing fruit cake and other treats that could be mailed to service members. One company’s ad mentioned “Send Your Soldier Boy a Liberty Cake,” For $1, including postage, a 24 oz. fruit cake could be sent abroad.
While sugar was not rationed during World War I, there was great pressure to conserve. In November 1917, candy makers were feeling the sugar shortage and they reduced their offerings. There were ads from confectioners in Vermont newspapers that year. The sentiment was “children should have candy!”
In 1942, sugar was the first food to be rationed, and chocolate followed. Service members received hard chocolate in their government rations. In 1941, the Mars Candy Company created M & M’s based on a similar product supplied to troops during the Spanish Civil War. They were heat-resistant and easy to transport and were exclusively produced for military rations.
As a result, there was a severe shortage of chocolate on the home front. The emphasis on a homemade Christmas extended to making, as nearly as possible, traditional Christmas sweets. A December 1943 United Opinion edition offered candy recipes to “S-t-r-e-t-c-h” rations points. They included recipes for Christmas fruit balls and marshmallow prunes.
When in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care…,” children had been hanging stockings for Santa for some time.
For many years, Christmas presents consisted only of what would fit in a stocking. That might include an apple or orange, some nuts, and hard candy. By 1884, oranges from Florida began to appear in Vermont. In 1888, Christmas oranges were being offered for sale at Beiley’s Store in Newbury. About that same time, boxes of California crystalized fruit were also available.
A 1912 article in The Country Gentleman described the contents of a common stocking: “homemade candy tied up in bright paper, a few sugar cookies and an orange.”
About 1908, the California Fruit Growers Association began a mass marketing campaign to link their oranges with Santa Claus. During the Great Depression, many families could not afford to buy holiday presents. An orange was an exotic treat.
Another exotic treat was dried dates. Dean Whitlock of Thetford wrote, “My favorite holiday sweet treats were stuffed dates.” They were made by filling pitted dates with shelled walnuts or pecans and sugar.
For many years, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” produced “the smell of Christmas in America.” In urban areas, street peddlers roasted chestnuts. Eaten warm, they are described as sweet and buttery. Chestnuts were also used in cakes and as stuffing for the Christmas turkey. Mixed nuts along with roast cashews were also available at holiday time.
From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, many people feel they gain weight due to the sweets consumed. The despair prompts many New Year’s resolutions. With best intentions under siege, Christmas cookies, pies and other treats are challenging to resist. Despite that, how sweet it is.