By BARBARA POLICHETTI
The Providence Journal
December 24, 2007
There simply had to be a candy cane hooked over the top of each stocking's fuzzy cuffs and bulky Lifesavers "Storybooks" stuffed inside. Also, before our fingers found the fresh navel oranges that always filled out the stockings' toes, we knew we would snag mesh sacks filled with foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
There were other sweet traditions. We could always count on at least three boxes of Russell Stover candy -- wrapped in festive poinsettia-covered cellophane -- arriving at the house as family gifts during the holiday season. And although my grandmother always had Russell Stovers to offer us all year long, my sister and I never quite got the lay of the land when it came to the interior organization of those bonbon boxes, and we inevitably ended up biting into fluffy creams when we really wanted the tug of nougat.
At home, this led to a lot of rustling through the chocolate's crinkly waxy cups and lots of nibbling and spitting -- all of which would infuriate my mom, who would immediately confiscate the box and remind us that these were "fine chocolates" that were not to be wasted. She also diligently guarded the seasonal boxes of ribbon candy that were kept in the dining-room buffet and handled as if they were religious relics.
If we wanted a piece, my mother would reverently take one box off its shelf and carefully place it in the center of the dining-room table before we were allowed to pluck one of the colorful ruffled confections from the nest of corrugated cardboard that kept it from smashing into a million pieces. Taste mattered, but the true measure of quality was just how thin it was, and we would debate in detail how one batch compared to the next and which candy house had the finest touch.
Visits to the homes of friends and relatives revealed that Christmas candy traditions were as individual as other holiday practices, whether it is a penchant for blue bulbs in the electric window candles or a real pine tree in favor of a shiny metallic model.
Peanut brittle and gumdrops would fill platters and covered crystal candy dishes in some homes, while others would have bowls and jars shimmering with silver Hershey's kisses. Rum balls and homemade fudge could also be found in abundance, while New Year's Eve seem to prompt people to open up their stashes of the more sophisticated Andes and After Eight chocolate-mint confections.
A search of the Internet finds no consistent accounting of how we came to incorporate candy into the Christmas season. Maybe it stems from a time when pine trees were decorated with cookies and other sweets around the time of the winter solstice. Maybe the Dutch had a hand, with their tradition of giving children giant chocolate letters that spell their names or initials at Christmastime.
Maybe it all started with the candy cane that ostensibly had humble beginnings in the 17th century as a simple white sugar stick used to hush children during long church services.
Or maybe it's simply because the days are short, the weather is cold and we need something to soothe our sensibilities.
Whatever the origins of the Christmas candy, it's a combination that is clearly here to stay.
Christmas is the third-biggest holiday for the nation's candy makers, according to the National Confectioners Association. (First and second are Halloween and Easter, respectively.)
This year, winter holiday sales are expected to total $1.4 billion, according to spokeswoman Susan Fussell, at the association's Virginia offices.
"There really is no definitive story about how it all began," she said. "It seems that at Christmas, the traditions are very personal and individual and are customs that have been passed from one generation to another. What is common for one family might be completely unknown to another."
A 2004 survey by the association found that chocolate is the favorite food gift that Americans like to receive, while the much-maligned fruitcake came in last.
The association, which works to promote the candy industry -- from mom-and-pop shops to corporate giants such as Hershey and Cadbury -- says Dec. 26 is National Candy Cane Day. And in case anyone is wondering, 1.76 billion candy canes are made each year -- enough to stretch from Santa Claus, Ind., to North Pole, Ark., and back 32 times.
Statistics aside, it's a simple fact that candy was always part of our holiday festivities, and the tradition has been heralded in prose, poems and song lyrics.
So let sugarplums dance in your head, keep your spirits merry and light and may all your Christmases be sweet.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com