The healing story of the Appalachian Christmas candy

The healing story of the Appalachian Christmas candy

It’s hard to imagine Christmas time without pastries. Holiday cakes, pies, pies, breads and a variety of other beloved delicacies are at the core of countless traditions. While a plate of festive delicacies will certainly inspire joy and comfort, we rarely associate health and healing with such foods. But in the North American region of Appalachia, it was once believed that every candy baked on Christmas Day had the power to prevent and cure disease.

The culture of the Appalachian region, which spans 13 eastern states, is particularly concentrated in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and North Carolina. History suggests that more than 90 per cent of the area’s first European settlers came from the north of England, the south of Scotland and parts of Ireland in the latter half of the 18th century. In later years, Swedish, Finnish, German, and Welsh pioneers would arrive. With these populations came cultural practices and beliefs deeply rooted in Christianity.

The mountainous, rural area created challenging living conditions and laborious work. With few resources available, settlers became skilled at growing, foraging, and preserving food, as fresh ingredients for most of the year were either unavailable or too expensive. Between malnutrition, dangerous work environments and lack of adequate medical care, the threat of illness was always present.

Religion was a source of hope, and the Christmas season was a respite from the persistent hardships of everyday life, which were only hampered by the harsh midwinter weather. People greeted every reason to believe they would see lighter days in the coming year. By the 19th century, a number of rituals and superstitions had been associated with Christmas, the majority of which were in the interest of good health and prosperity.

Spices like ginger and cloves have medicinal properties, but may not be enough to make a difference when baked into a Christmas cake.
Spices like ginger and cloves have medicinal properties, but may not be enough to make a difference when baked into a Christmas cake. Public domain

One was the belief that everything baked on Christmas Day had the ability to cure and prevent disease. For this reason, some families would bake extra cakes and bread and store them to be eaten during the coming months of the year. Like most folklore, the origins of this practice are uncertain. However, history suggests that it dates back many centuries, to the time when “Old Christmas” was still a common day of celebration. This day, which falls on January 6, was maintained as an important holiday in Appalachian communities long after the modern calendar shifted the festive focus to December 25th.

Some of the most common candies prepared at Old Christmas were fruitcake, apple pie, chop pie and gingerbread. These recipes were brought over by the Anglo-Scottish settlers and adapted over time based on the availability of ingredients. Fruitcake prepared in the traditional Appalachian way is markedly different from the neon-obsessed, candied breads that pop up in today’s grocery stores every season, but whether it is more tasty is up for debate. In Sidney Saylor Farr’s book More than moonlight (1983), her friend Nell Caldwell tells how her family’s fruitcake “was not your traditional everyday life… there was no money to buy such things in the store.”

The word “fruitcake” in Appalachia meant many different things, depending on the region and one’s family lineage. For many, it was an extremely dense, tough mix of fed nuts, dried fruits and jams, which after baking were very soaked in whiskey, brandy or moonshine. Some families’ fruitcakes looked more like the Scottish black bun, with a biscuit-like pastry dough enclosing the heavy nut and fruit mixture. “The poor man’s fruitcake” is the slightly derogatory term for apple pie, the typical Appalachian sweet made from sorghum sweet, pancake-like layer spread with spicy dried canned apples. As with most recipes in Appalachia, these treats became popular for their use of cheap, preservable ingredients.

Some families made black buns as their Christmas candy.
Some families made black buns as their Christmas candy. IMBJR / CC BY-SA 3.0

Beulah Garcia, a native of West Virginia, recalls her family’s tradition of making fruitcake, which was “washed with rum or sweet cherries once a week to preserve it.” Eating a slice along with a cup of tea with honey, she says, is especially good “for a common cold.” She adds that gingerbread men and gingerbread men are “good for your body too” because of their spices.

These beliefs are not entirely unfounded. The spices used in holiday recipes, such as dried, ground ginger root, cinnamon and cloves, have medicinal properties. Ginger is known to alleviate nausea and digestive problems, while cinnamon is a proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory with the ability to lower blood sugar levels. In their book Appalachian Folklore: Warnings, Signs, and Superstitions, Nancy Richmond and Misty Murray Walkup cite cloves as being “used to treat arthritis and as an antiseptic.” However, the small amounts used for baking are unlikely enough to treat any medical condition. The various alcohols used to preserve these holiday treats could also have contributed to their presumed healing properties. Traditional Appalachian remedies cite whiskey and moonshine as healing remedies for a variety of bodily ailments, from arthritis and asthma to the common cold and congestion.

Cakes were often made with what was available.
Cakes were often made with what was available. Simon McGill / Getty Images

Perhaps more significant than the ingredients in the baked goods was the day they were cooked. Numerous Christmas folk legends centered on health and prosperity are associated with the renowned healing powers of the time. “Christmas brought all kinds of luck as long as you were looking for it,” says Marie Hatcher, a lifelong resident of Kentucky. “We would go visit and eat cakes with our neighbors, knowing that Jesus would bless us healthy that year. If we got 12 visitors to our home, we knew it would be a good and easy year.” What Hatcher referred to was common practice in Appalachia on Christmas Day, when neighbors visited each other’s homes and ate pieces of cake or other candy, and a dozen visitors to one’s home — a reference to the 12 apostles — promised a year of good luck to the household.

Like most folklore, the Appalachian tradition of preserving and eating Christmas pastries for their healing virtues remains somewhat mysterious. If nothing else, the holiday treats served to lift the spirits of those who baked and enjoyed them. When eaten for Christmas, they were a means of sharing feelings of hope and well-being with their loved ones, and when preserved and eaten months later, they were a reminder of the happiest days of the year. While this Appalachian belief may have diminished in modern times, go ahead and enjoy an extra piece of cake this holiday, for good luck in the coming year.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wonderful food and drink.

Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *