This week on Mental Floss‘ Instant Expert series—a weekly show where knowledge junkies get their fix of trivia-tastic information—host John Green discusses 27 popular holiday traditions and how they came about. As expected, many of those traditions involve food, like candy canes and Hanukkah gelt. Read on or watch the video above to discover the origin of your favorite holiday foodstuff.
Candy canes have been around since the 1670s. Apparently, a German choir director passed sugar sticks out to children in the congregation to minimize noise during mass. To connect them to religion, the sticks were curved over at the top to represent shepherd’s crooks.
Latkes and other fried foods on Hanukkah represent the oil that was said to leave the original menorah candles burning for 8 days (and also because fried foods are delicious). Potato latkes became a thing associated with Hanukkah in the mid-1800s.
Christmas cookies have been around since Medieval Europe, but North American kids have been leaving cookies and milk for Santa since about the 1930s. Many believe that this had something to do with the Great Depression and teaching naughty kids to be more generous.
It’s believed that Hanukkah gelt originated in Poland in the 17th century, where parents gave their children money to give to their teachers. Chocolate gelt replaced money in the 1920s when the Loft’s candy companies started producing candy coins.
Apples and other edibles were originally hung on Christmas trees instead of ornaments, because the Christmas tree was meant to represent the tree of life. Although, apples have been wrongly maligned and the fruit in the tree of life is never named.
The name Kwanzaa comes from Swahili, in which matunda ya kwanza means “first fruit.”