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The Botany of Christmas

I come from a long line of European women who did a lot of baking: fresh bread and buns, pies, squares, cookies and strudels.  Although my mother and grandmother baked throughout the year, Christmas was my favorite time because that’s when the really special treats were made, things that you didn’t eat just every day: hot roasted chestnuts, fruitcake, butter tarts, honey cake, shortbread and chocolate Yule log.

As I grew older I began to wonder why so many Christmas desserts and snacks featured nuts, dried fruits and lots of spices.  As I learned more about these traditional Christmas foods I realized that nuts and dried fruits were some of the only food items available in the northern hemisphere in winter.  We tend to forget nowadays that 100 years ago just about everyone was on the 100-mile diet (no Mandarin oranges for Christmas back then!).  Spices were too expensive for common people to use frequently so they were saved for special occasions.

Cinnamon sticks and old spice jars from the 2004 exhibit "A Natural History of Christmas Foods."
Cinnamon sticks and old spice jars from the 2004 exhibit “A Natural History of Christmas Foods.”

In 2004 my passion for food history culminated in a small exhibit on Christmas foods here at the Museum.  For the next three weeks I will be posting some of the information that was in this exhibit in my blog.  Starting tomorrow get ready to learn more about Christmas nuts (and no I’m not referring to your crazy uncle Joe).

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.