Ahh, the holiday season. A time for togetherness, food and songs we don’t understand. Through the ages there’s been one tradition that continues throughout all generations and cultures: eating shit tons of food and then singing about that food. Unfortunately, most of our Christmas song writing ability has been lost as modern refrigeration techniques have improved. (Seriously, Christmas Shoes? WHAT THE SHIT IS THAT?) As a result we end up singing about strange old-timey food we’ve never had.
So what exactly is all that weird food that we’ve been singing about? I’m here to give you the answers!
Figgy Pudding (or Christmas or Plum pudding)
‘Now, bring us some figgy pudding…’ –The 12 Days of Christmas
Figgy pudding, a desert shrouded in mystery. But it’s pudding, so it’ll be delicious and chocolaty, right? No, dear friends, no.
Figgy or Christmas pudding is an English dish, and like most things called pudding in the UK, it does not resemble pudding in any way. (In case you’re not familiar, the traditional British dish, Yorkshire pudding is a roll/popover type thing, white pudding is a sausage made with oatmeal and black pudding is a sausage made with…GUH…blood.) Apparently, the only requirement for a thing to be pudding in the UK is that the food product is a) in a circle and b) completely disgusting. Christmas pudding is no different.
Yes, in the great British tradition of making inedible food, Christmas pudding might just take the cake. (It’s not a cake either.) The pudding is made up of a bunch of chopped up dried fruit (figs, plums, etc), spices, sugar, some kind of booze and, you guessed it suet. What’s suet you ask? Why it’s delicious kidney fat! You know, the kind we feed to birds! GAG.
The ingredients are then boiled in a cloth. What results is a gross black mass, which is then SET ON FIRE, because apparently the Brits knew what kind of abomination they had created, even if they still intended on eating it. What’s crazier is the tradition of setting gross food on fire still exists in the UK to this day.
Why do people still eat this stuff? Like many inexplicable traditions, it began in the 1400s. It was basically just a way to preserve meat for the winter and later they started throwing a bunch of fruit and spices and stuff until it morphed into the gross black lump we have today. Look, I’m all for tradition, I love vintage clothing, furniture, antiques and all my grandma’s recipes, but there’s some things its okay to leave behind, particularly medieval food preparation. In the age of refrigeration, food that is designed to stay good for years should be left to the experts, like astronauts and crazy people who have 16 years of MREs stockpiled in bomb shelters they’ll never use. Maybe it’s just me though.
‘Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green, here we come a-wassailing, so fair to be seen.’ – Here We Come A-wassailing
Wassail. Welp this one gets a little weird. Well, weirder. The drink itself isn’t that strange. It’s basically a hot mulled cider, with a bunch of oranges thrown in and some booze. The medieval version was more heavy on the booze, and was also topped with a piece of toast, called a sop. That’s right, actual toasted bread. Apparently, sops were super popular back in the day, because back when boiling fruit, fat and booze together and then setting them on fire was considered a delicacy, wine soaked bread seemed perfectly logical. (One of the only foods containing a sop today is French onion soup, which is probably the only food to ever contain a sop that totally wasn’t gross.)
Anyway, the drink wassail, isn’t that weird, but the act of wassailing, was pretty damn strange, and doesn’t have much to do with Christmas. Wasailling was a traditional English ceremony, on the 12th Night (12 day of Christmas). Basically, you ran around in an apple orchard in the dark and drink loads of wassail in order to…
‘To awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.’
After that the wassail Queen would throw some wassail soaked sops into the trees as an offering to the tree spirits, because apparently tree spirits were fond of booze soaked bread as well.
Riiiiiiight. Or they just wanted to get shit-tanked and hang out with some ghosts in the name of Jesus and apples. Either way, this is a celebration I can get behind, aside from the whole throwing wet bread in trees thing. Plus that song makes way more sense now. Good on you wassailers out there.
The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Tchaikovsky -Or-
‘Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…’ – Clement C. Moore’s, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (Not a song, but you get the idea.)
Ok, lets stop making fun of the Brits. Both Europe and the United States are responsible for sugar plums. What are sugar plums exactly? Well, certainly not actual plums! That would be too obvious. Sugar plums are candies made up of, you guessed it, a shit ton of chopped up dried fruit (prunes, dates, figs, cherries, etc.) mixed with spices, nuts, and honey. They are then rolled into little balls and topped with sugar.
Admittedly, I found a recipe for these once and actually made them. They weren’t terrible or inedible, but they are definitely the last thing anyone took off the cookie plate, and you guys, I am super good at cookies. Anyway, I’m sure before the invention of chocolate these things were probably damn near orgasmic, but again, this is something that pretty easy to pass up now-a-days. I don’t mind watching the pretty ladies that dance around to that song though.
Oh, ribbon candy! Oh, ribbon candy! Why would anyone ever eat you? (Sung to the tune of O Christmas Tree) – Christa Weiss, master composer
Okay, so there is no song about ribbon candy. Why? Because at no point in the history of ever, has anyone actually enjoyed eating ribbon candy. Sure, Christmas pudding or sugar plums seem gross now, but back in the middle ages the fact that you had any food at all in the dead of winter was pretty awesome. There is no excuse for ribbon candy. The worst part? WE’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS.
That’s right kids, almost all ribbon candy in its modern form comes from Brockton, MA, a (shitty) town just outside of Boston. If you don’t know what ribbon candy is, it’s a hard candy made of sugar (and not much else) that’s delicately shaped into a colorful ribbon. Sound good? It’s not, because it is also damn near impossible to eat. Ribbon candy is VERY sensitive to any kind of moisture, which is great for a city right next to the ocean. This means that you ever try to take a single piece of ribbon candy it will be stuck to every other piece of candy in the bowl. The pieces are usually about 3-6 inches long, which means unless you want to eat a ball of hard sticky sugar that’s roughly the size of a basket ball, and tastes like peppermint, anise, orange, cinnamon, lime, cherry and grape all mixed together, this candy really isn’t for you.
While ribbon candy in some form has existed in Europe for centuries, it was kind of a pain in the ass to make. The evil Sevigny Candy company from Brockton, revolutionized the process in the 1940s, by way of some kind of pact with the devil (or possibly Krampus.)
One website boasts that ribbon candy is one of the healthier candies, at only 60 calories a piece. It’s actually closer to 0 because no one has actually ever managed to eat one. I’m fairly certain, all the ribbon candy in the world today was actually made in 1940, and just passed from one generation to another. It looks great in a candy dish though.
There you have it! Weird Old-timey Christmas food.
I decided to skip fruitcake even though it’s also totally gross and weird, because again, it was just more chopped up dried fruit and spices formed into a gross brick. Also, everyone always shits on fruitcake and its not nearly as disgusting as christmas pudding, even thought it’s made out of almost the exact same ingredients. Anyway, what I’ve learned is that many traditional Christmas meals were just based on foods that needed to stay edible for a really long time due to the lack of refrigeration thing. I can only image what our great great great great grandchildren will think when they are celebrating the hallowed Super Bowl in February, 300 years from now, munching on the traditional meal of Doritos, chicken wings and bean dip shaped like a football. A girl can dream.