Christmas Myth Trivia: Candy canes, Yule Logs and pickles

Since the Christmas season has more traditions than any other holiday, CDN trivia has decided to investigate three of them.

Screen shot from one of many Yule Log videos now available on YouTube for those unfortunate Americans without a working fireplace. This odd, virtual Yule Log tradition started many years ago on cable TV.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, December 9, 2015 – Yuletide greetings from the Communities Digital News trivia page. With the holidays upon us, let’s look at three popular Christmas traditions, where they came from and what they mean.

1 – Candy Canes: According to one story, back in 1670 Germany, a choirmaster became concerned about retaining the attention spans of children during the long Christmas Day service. His solution was to give them something to eat. Who knows? Perhaps his sweet solution was the forerunner of “hush money.”

As the legend goes, the candy handed out by the choirmaster looked like a letter “J,” or the shape of a shepherd’s crook, the better to remind these inattentive children of the shepherds who visited the manger where Jesus was born.

Unfortunately, the earliest record of candy canes does not appear until 200 years later, however. That means, as so frequently happens with trivia, that the original, attractive legend is probably not true.

It is known that the first iterations of this perennially candy cane were straight rather than J-shaped. It appears that the now-ubiquitous red stripes were added around 1900. Peppermint or wintergreen flavoring was added around this time to represent the hyssop plant the Bible says was used for purification.

In 1920, Bob McCormack, a native of the state of Georgia, began making the canes for special occasions for his friends. Later, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest and McCormack’s brother-in-law invented a machine that automatically turned the straight sticks into canes.

It is believed that candy canes are shaped like a “J” to represent Jesus, with white symbolizing purity and the red stripes serving as a reminder of the blood shed by Christ when he died on the cross.

2 – The Yule Log: This tradition traces its roots to medieval Scandinavia. Yule is the name used for old Winter Solstice festivals in the Nordic countries and other parts of northern Europe.

In its first incarnation, a Yule Log was a carefully selected tree that cut and brought intact into the house with great ceremony. The base was placed into the hearth with the rest of the tree sticking out into the room.

The tradition was to light the end of the log from the remains of the tree from the year before with the resulting fire intended to last through the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Variations of the ceremony can be found in other places throughout Europe. In the Provence region of France, for example, the entire family participated in cutting the log with a little bit of the tree burned each night. If there is anything left after Twelfth Night, it was stored in the house until the following Christmas.

Some parts of Holland followed a similar tradition, except that the remains of the log were kept under a bed. In Eastern Europe, the log was cut on the morning of Christmas Eve and lit later that evening.

The Yule Log is called “The Mock” in the United Kingdom. In Cornwall the log was dried and the bark trimmed away before it was brought inside for burning. Barrel makers, or coopers as they were called, would frequently give away old logs they could not use for barrels to be later burned as Yule Logs.

Different countries used different woods. Oak was used in England, while the Scots used birch and the French preferred cherry. France added another twist by sprinkling the fire with wine to make its aroma more enticing.

Some other areas in England used ash twigs rather than logs to represent the branches of trees the shepherds gave Jesus, Mary and Joseph for warmth on Christmas night.

A bit further to the West, the Irish preferred to light large candles instead of logs. They only burned these special candles on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night.

Over the centuries, it was discovered that Yule Logs could produce colored flames when doused with different chemicals. It was also learned that ashes from the logs were nutritious for plants because they contained large amounts of potash which helps plants grow. But be warned, throwing out the ashes on Christmas Day is regarded as very unlucky.

Today, France and Belgium have come up with the best solution: a chocolate Yule Log made of chocolate sponge roll layered with cream. Sometimes the outside is covered with chocolate icing to represent bark.

Could it be that this is origin of the saying, “his bark is first in his bite”?

3 – The Christmas Pickle: Ever heard of this one? Not only is it odd. There are no records as to why such a thing actually exists. Some say the tradition is German, while others give Russia the credit.

Supposedly, the Christmas pickle was the last ornament placed on a tree in Germany, and the child who found it received a special prize.

Another story says that a dying prisoner during the American Civil War begged his guard for a pickle before he expired. The compassionate guard gave the soldier a pickle and he miraculously survived.

Yet another legend claims that two young boys from Spain stopped at an inn one day while traveling home. The innkeeper supposedly killed them for no reason and placed them in a pickle barrel. That night, St. Nicholas stopped at the same inn, discovered the bodies and brought them back to life.

Pickles may be the strangest tradition of the season, but they do prove that in the curious world of trivia there is never a “dill” moment.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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