Christmas is almost upon us and I’ve been busy baking cookies and making fudge. Sweets are a big part of Christmas, always have been. Who hasn’t read over and over, “Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” from Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” published in 1823? (Better known today as “Twas The Night Before Christmas”.) And there’s the beautiful dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” composed in 1892. While not as popular as they once were, sugar plums can still be purchased online.
My grandmother always had a bowl of mixed traditional Christmas candy, including the ever popular ribbon candy. I was never sure how to eat those as they were so big. It was too much to eat at once and it quickly got too messy to set down to save for later. The small candies were easier to handle but I always thought them too pretty to eat. And since they weren’t individually wrapped it didn’t seem to take long before they were fused together in one big lump of sticky colored sugar, partly from being touched by everyone else as they dug around to be certain they saw all their choices.
Ribbon candy goes back centuries in Europe. It was originally shaped by wrapping around the candy maker’s thumb. It was the 1800s before a mechanical finger-like crimper was developed. It took three candy makers to achieve this classic shape. The first made the candy, the second spun off a ribbon and fed it through the crimper, while a third stood at the end and cut off the individual pieces with scissors. It worked well, but was slow labor-intensive work. It wasn’t until the 1940s that a single spinning roll was developed. By carefully tending the candy batch it was found the middle job of hand spinner could be eliminated, speeding up the process. A bottleneck in production still existed at the cutting end, but with the invention of an air activated cutter by Sevigny Candy, a process still used by F.B. Washburn Candy today, the brightly-colored ribbons could now be mass produced.
Perhaps the most popular Christmas candy is the candy cane. It originated 250 years ago in Germany and started out as a straight white sugar stick. There are many legends of how the candy cane took the shape they are known for today, but they probably aren’t true. The earliest record of candy canes goes back to about 1900 when red stripes were added and they were flavored with either peppermint or wintergreen. Around 1920, Bob McCormack started hand-making canes for his friends and family. As they became more and more in demand he started a business, Bob’s Candies. It was his brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest, who invented the Keller Machine that made turning straight candy sticks into canes automatic.
Some have given Christian meanings to the parts of the canes. The shape can represent either a shepherd’s crook or the letter “J” for Jesus. The white stripe is the purity of Christ and the red the blood He shed on the cross; the peppermint flavor representing the hyssop plant that was used in Biblical times for purifying. The three thin red stripes supposedly represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
No matter what candy is your favorite at Christmas, may you have enough this holiday season to satisfy your sweet tooth without making yourself ill or rotting your teeth.