Visions of Sugarplums

The holiday season is in full swing again: the same familiar music, traditions, family gatherings, and sugary treats that signify good times and good living. While each of us may celebrate this time of year in a different fashion, there are similarities across race, region, and religion that just seem to fit in with the winter holidays.

We’ve pretty much always loved the flavor “sweet”. Culinary anthropologists have traced sugarcane to Indonesia, where it was domesticated at around 8000 BC, and its first recorded refining was in India around AD 350. The domesticated cane spread quickly throughout the far east, and like many spices from the area, trade routes brought sugar through northern Africa and the Arab Empire, where its production met the western world for the first time. Crusaders encountered “sweet salt” on their journeys, and, returning to Europe, the modern sweet tooth had found root in the entire Old World.

Sugar was very expensive, due to the high level of labor required to grow and harvest the cane, crush the cane into juice, and boil the juice down to produce its crystallized form. In fact, one of the earliest uses of slaves from Africa was to cut labor costs in the production of sugar on the island of Sicily – a precedent that followed Europeans to the sugarcane-friendly (but not African-peoples-friendly) Americas. Finally, with cheap labor and profitable trade routes, the sugar craze was on, taking sugar from an expensive luxury product to the cheap commodity that we still enjoy today – though thankfully now with less inequitable labor practices.

The history of sugar as a luxury product shows us how it became associated with celebration. While today, more than half of all Americans consume 180 pounds of sugar per year – half a pound a day -

- sugar used to be a holiday-only food for many. This is why we have a “birthday cake” and not a “birthday porridge”. Holidays were a time for sugar and sweets because eating these treats was a rare and special occasion. So, in this time of various winter solstice celebrations, we contemplate the sources of some of our favorite seasonal sweets:

Gingerbread House (Christmas?)

While we tend to associate gingerbread with Christmas, it has few religious ties to speak of. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. While most documents fix the death of Jesus to an accuracy of a few days (notwithstanding uncertainties in the calendar since that time), the date of his birth is much less precise – scholars estimate it as 7-4 BC in the Gregorian calendar, despite the calendar’s year 0 being nominally associated with his birth. In addition, early Christianity did not place much emphasis on Jesus’ birth, but more on the Epiphany – the revelation of Jesus as the son of God, and, you know, not just some guy who, like most of us, was born at some point. Regardless, at around AD 300, Christmas was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice, December 25, and so inherited much of its traditions from celebrations associated with winter – that’s where the evergreen Christmas Tree came from, for example. Gingerbread, however, came much later.

In fact, Gingerbread didn’t even start out as a bread or cookie. The word “gingerbread” comes from the Old French “gingebras”, a preserved ginger confection made with honey and spices. Over time, this confection got incorporated into traditional savory cakes – German lebkuchen and French pain d’épices – to produce a thick, cakey spice bread, like ginger carrot cake. Since refined sugar was so expensive at the time of its development, these cakes are traditionally made with honey or molasses.

The harder gingerbread that is used today for our traditional Godzilla-like consumption of structures and decimation of tasty little gumdrop button men got its start when the gingerbread cakes were retrofitted onto an existing tradition of baking biscuits, painting them, and hanging them in shop windows as a festive decoration.

The European biscuit, of course. Hard to hang a buttermilk biscuit in a window.

Queen Elizabeth I would give guests a shaped biscuit in their likeness, so her court is credited with the invention of the gingerbread man. It is assumed that this was an amusing gesture, and not an excuse to see her guests bite the limbs off of their own doppelgängers, but you never know. The same era had people inflating pig bladders and kicking them past each other to a goal just for amusement. Soccer may be more standardized (and vegetarian) today but let’s not make any hasty assumptions about what ancient peoples would do for fun.

The gingerbread house got its start from a fairy tale – the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, when the protagonists discovered a Brothäuslein, a little house of bread: “so sahen sie, daß das Häuslein aus Brot gebaut war und mit Kuchen gedeckt; aber die Fenster waren von hellem Zucker.” (They saw that the little house was built of bread and decked with cookies; and the windows were of sugar glass). Interestingly, the type of bread used was not mentioned in the text; we could easily today demolish a house made of rye for Oktoberfest if it weren’t for the fact that the existing festive holiday gingerbread biscuits were structurally ideal for the task.

And thus, we can trace the tradition of the Gingerbread House not to the birth of a holy child, but to a “böse Hexe” – an evil witch.

Sufganiot (Hanukkah)

When it comes to a holiday snack, it’s hard to find a better one than the Israeli Hanukkah treat of Sufganiot. If I were designing a holiday tradition, I too would start with jelly-filled doughnuts. Unlike the gingerbread house, however, this food has a direct connection to the holiday.

When Judea was captured by the Seleucid Empire of Syria in 200 BC, Antiochus III guaranteed his new Jewish subjects the right to maintain their religion. However, his son, Antiocus IV, invaded Jerusalem for political reasons on the side of the Hellenistic Jews: Jews who were in favor of merging Judaism and the pantheon of the Greek gods. Antiochus outlawed Judaism, erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple of Jerusalem – the major center of Jewish worship – and started the practice of slaughtering pigs at the altar. Remember that pigs are not kosher to conservative Jews. All of this, among other things, did not make him popular with the Jewish people.

A group of Jews called the Maccabees (from the Hebrew word for “Hammer”, how cool is that?) rebelled and eventually recaptured the temple. They removed the altar to Zeus and cleaned the temple, rededicating it and reestablishing the menorah – the lampstand that was burned all night at the temple. The problem was that they were only able to find enough pure olive oil to light the menorah for one day; however this oil supply proceeded to burn for eight days until more oil could be prepared. This is the miracle of Hanukkah (the Rededication) of the temple.

In honor of the oil used, many Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating fried foods, for example, latkes and sufganiot. In this way, the celebratory nature of sugar finds a tie to its winter holiday. The name Sufganiot has several theorized origins: the Hebrew word “sofganYa” (end of the garden of God), a reference to sufganne, a fried dough from around the time of the Maccabees, or sufgan, Greek for “puffed and fried”. All I know is that the name is hard to say when you’ve stuffed one of these in your mouth.

Benne Cakes (Kwanzaa)

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 as the only holiday specifically created to “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society”, as Maulana Karenga its founder, states. Its name is derived from “matunda ya kwanza” a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits of the harvest”, and is celebrated every year from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa celebrates the Nguzo Saba – the Seven Principles of African Heritage, and focuses on one for each day of festivity. Rather than having any religious meaning, Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration of what it means to be reconnected with one’s traditions, and focuses on African music, dance, history, and food – which brings us to the benne cake.

Benne is the Bantu word for sesame, and, since the sesame plant is an African native, benne cakes are naturally suitable for Kwanzaa. Benne cakes are cookies that are studded with sesame seeds, and, since sesame seeds are considered good luck, Benne cakes are a lucky food. Once popular mostly in the U.S. South, Benne cakes are now becoming more associated with this newer holiday.

Nian Gao (Chinese New Year)

Chinese New Year is known in China as the Spring Festival – the celebration of the end of winter, akin to the Western celebration of Carnival. The holiday is a 15-day long celebration starting on the first day of the new year in the Chinese calendar with emphasis on a new beginning and prosperity. In preparation, houses are cleaned in order to sweep away any negativity and bad luck from the previous year, enabling good luck and prosperity to enter the house. Food is prepared and decorations are hung with designs intended to bring good fortune into the household.

Each of the days has a particular emphasis and meaning; from lighting fireworks to visiting families, remembering ancestors to a Valentine’s-day-like celebration of matchmaking singles. Gifts are exchanged, including red packets: red envelopes filled with money given from elders or married couples to children or singles. The festivities end on the fifteenth day with the Lantern Festival, where lanterns are hung to coincide with the first full moon in the lunar-centric Chinese calendar.

There are a lot of traditional foods that accompany the Chinese New Year, including fish, oranges, dumplings, and Nian Gao. Nian Gao, which translates to “sticky cake”, is a homonym for “year high” – a more prosperous year. It is a cake made from glutinous rice flour, and can be either savory or sweet, and is often pan fried. The cake was created to be an offering to the Kitchen God, whose mouth would be stuck shut so that he would be unable to bad-mouth the family to other gods. No, really. During the new year, it is often prepared sweet and in layers to symbolize rising abundance.


No matter what traditions you observe, or if you’re starting new ones, we wish you a sweet and luxurious new year, Chinese or otherwise. We’ll leave you with a couple more facts to tide you through the holidays:

Sugarplums aren’t plums, they’re a form of dragee candy – rarely made with plum, they were something like a dried-fruit-and-nut-instead-of-chocolate M&M.

Visions of these are dancing in your head.

Also, don’t forget while reciting your New Years toasts that alcohol is fermented sugar: sugar, to which we owe so much of our holiday cheer.

Happy Sugardays.

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