Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Sugar Plums

image of packaging for sugar plums

Even though you hear about sugar plums every Christmas, do you actually know what they are? In this episode we learn the mostly forgotten history of this Christmassy treat.

Fun links

  • Childhood Remastered: Hear the podcasts’s hosts share a Christmas memory in this episode. Then subscribe to their podcast on iTunes
  • Sugar Plum recipe from food blogger Valerie Lugonja

Music from this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:10
Try to imagine a Christmas where you don’t hear about sugar plums. Or try to imagine sugar plums without thinking of Christmas. Or Come to think of it. Try to imagine a sugar plum. What comes to mind? plums with sugar on them some sugar retreat in the shape of a plum. Well, it’s neither of those. And isn’t it strange that this thing that’s so familiar to all of us in some way, something you’ve probably heard about every year since birth is also almost completely unknown. You have almost certainly never seen or tasted a real Sugar Plum.

Nowadays, sugar plums and Christmas go together like ramen eggnog. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. The backstory is is full of surprises as a stocking hung by the chimney with care. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

My first vision of a sugar plum dancing came from a pop up book of a visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke more. Well, they didn’t dance, not really. They rotated on a spinning cardboard wheel. It was a book my mother read to us every Christmas Eve. Now my brother reads that same book to his children.

Brian’s brother 1:17
I was so excited when mom gave it to me. And now I read it with the kids a lot of great memories with this book, pop ups.

Brian’s niece 1:25
Um, some of the pop ups are old and they don’t work anymore.

Brian’s brother 1:29
And there’s a sort of a dream spot over their head where you can rotate candy and sugar palms

Brian’s niece 1:36
And the sugar plum dancing in the head move around. So it looks like it’s like moving in their hand all the candy they’re imagining.

Brian Earl 1:46
But the first time the world heard of sugar plums, it was in a pamphlet published in England in 1608. And the author wasn’t talking about sugar plums as a kind of candy, or having anything to do with Christmas. He used the word to describe a bribe given to keep someone quiet. Now no one knows for sure where the term came from, or what it actually referred to. Maybe it referred to fruit preserved in sugar, which was a fairly new idea back then.

So we had the word before we had the sweet, but about 50 years later, the term had already fallen into general usage and was a common phrase and someone used it to describe these candy coated nuts and seeds known as confit. Now interestingly, the word confit comes from the Latin confectum, which means to make. It’s also where we get the words confection and confetti. Confits were usually caraway seeds, or fennel, or cardamom pods. And typically they were sold as remedies for indigestion and bad breath. In fact, you could only get them at apothecaries. And also you could only get them if you had a lot of money. You see, sugar was really expensive back then, not like it is now where you can buy a bag at the store for a buck or two. And making them was delicate work something that only a trained and skilled confectioner could do. Of course, eventually, the price of sugar fell dramatically, and new industrial processes were invented that allowed for sugar plums to be produced in large quantities. So that meant more sugar plums on the market and more people who could afford them. And it wasn’t long before people noticed that in addition to being a useful remedy, these things just tasted good. So eventually, they moved from the apothecary to the confectioners counter, and confectioner’s would sell them in cones, and would color them red and yellow and green.

Remember that the word Sugar Plum began its life as slang for a bribe, but was eventually used to describe candy coated nuts and seeds. Well, that word is about to undergo another phase and its evolution. Sooner or later, people began using Sugar Plum to describe anything sweet, whether literally or figuratively, and sometimes it was even just shortened to Plum. That explains why to this day we describe a cushy job as a plum position, or why plum pudding doesn’t actually contain plums. It also explains why Tchaikovsky made the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ruler of the land of sweets in the Nutcracker. So as those children were nestled all snug in their beds, those visions dancing through their heads could have been actual sugar plums. But it also could have been a metaphor for Sweet dreams in general. I guess we’ll never know for sure. But what we can say for sure is that Christmas and sugar plums are connected the way that they are specifically because they were mentioned in a visit from St. Nicholas and the Nutcracker. Both were written in the 1800s when the word Sugar Plum was at the peak of its popularity. Sugar plums have been revamped for the modern age and if you google around, you’ll find no shortage of recipes. Most of them are variations on the same basic idea where you take some kind of dried fruit and some nuts along with some spices and sweetener. Put it into a food processor until it forms a thick and sticky

Paste, and then you roll it into small balls and dusted with sugar. Of course, these bear no resemblance at all to traditional sugar plums. But so what they’re easy to make and a real crowd pleaser. I’ll post a link to some of those recipes at Christmas Past podcast.com. So check them out and give them a try. And maybe there’ll become a new annual tradition. Annual traditions in general, and Christmas traditions in particular are unique in that we don’t seem to get tired of the repetition. There aren’t that many movies that I could watch year after year without getting bored eventually, except if it happens to be a Christmas movie.

There’s something about that repetition that conjures up nostalgic feelings and warm memories of Christmas Past. And that’s why watching those Christmas movies and tv specials year after year, has become a cherished tradition for so many of us. Like my friend Amy in Massachusetts.

Amy in Massachusetts 5:55
This is Amy from Brockton, Massachusetts. And one of my favorite memories growing up is watching all the Christmas specials on TV. My mom always loved watching the classics like Charlie Brown and Rudolph and frosty. And back then we also had Garfield and Mickey’s Christmas carol that would be on TV. And even as an adult, I continue that tradition. I love watching those and my mom will even call me and tell me Oh tonight Charlie Brown is on tonight Rudolph is on and I make sure to watch them on TV. It’s something special to see them live on TV still instead of watching them on a DVD. And I hope to pass that tradition on to my one year old as he gets older.

Brian Earl 6:41
Now you may have noticed that Amy has a very soothing voice. And that’s because Amy is a librarian who has a very cute baby. I hope to be able to see them when I’m home in Massachusetts for Christmas. Of course Amy is not the only one who loves those specials year after year. And so for the first time this season, I have two related Christmas memories to share. Chris and Shawn host a podcast called childhood remastered where they take a look at the cartoons of their youth to see if they’re still worth anything. Let’s hear them recall some of their favorite Christmas movies.

Sean 7:14
This is Shawn

Chris 7:15
and Chris.

Sean 7:15
So my favorite Christmas movie from my youth probably has to be Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It’s movie that came out in 1983 animated movies about 30 minutes long. And it takes the the classic Dickens STORY OF A Christmas Carol and it uses Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck Ebenezer Scrooge and everybody to tell that story. We watched it every year. It’s sad and exciting and really gets the point of the entire book across the whole theme in a good way and in a way that the children can understand it. It’s something that we watched all the time even when it wasn’t Christmas.

Chris 7:49
I used to watch this movie to actually is only about a half an hour. And it would always come on with Donald’s snow snow fight snow fight. Yeah, so Donald snow fight. And I love that that was actually probably my favorite part of the whole thing.

Sean 8:02
Yeah, it was a short from like the 40s. Right.

Chris 8:04
It was only about seven minutes on 1942. But for me, I think my movies probably home alone. Did you watch…

Sean 8:09
your course. Of course. I watched home alone. Everybody wanted to be Kevin McAllister.

Chris 8:12
Yeah, you and I were about the same age when it came out as Macaulay Culkin and the idea of fending off your house from these bad guys, I think was really something that was inspiring for a little kid to think that they were kind of it’s very self empowering for 9, 10 year old

Sean 8:29
probably probably caused a lot of home injuries with kids trying to reenact things and injuring their parents or siblings.

Chris 8:35
Oh, yeah, well, and my favorite part of the whole movie is where he tricks the pizza guy into leaving the pizza and he got to keep his money by tricking him and listening to that movie. And with a firefight in the firecracker firecrackers in the pan. That’s my favorite part of that movie. It still is I I’m in my 30s I still watch a movie regularly.

Sean 8:52
Yeah, those are great. Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed our picks where our favorite Christmas movie again, if you want to hear anything else that we like to talk about, we brought we talked about cartoons and shows of our youth. You can tune into us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re a childhood remaster.com Check us out.

Brian Earl 9:09
You know, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed hearing all of these Christmas memories throughout the season. And I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to record something and send it to Christmas pass podcast@gmail.com I think it really added something special to the show. And of course I couldn’t have done that without you. That was the last full length episode of the 2016 season. But there’s plenty of Christmas spirit left to come. Be on the lookout for two mini episodes that will come out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Until then, let me tell you that Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly Brian Earl. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sharing vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia search for Christmas pass podcast in all three places and you’ll find me and you’ll find Show Notes for this episode and every other episode to at Christmas pass podcast.com thanks very much to my

Brother Richard and my niece Emma. Thanks also to Amy, Chris and Shawn. And as always, thank you for listening. I hope to see you next time.

Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or anywhere else you get podcasts. If you need suggestions or help with subscribing, check out the Subscribe page. And if you have a moment, please leave a rating. It helps spread the Christmas cheer to more listeners!

Join the chorus!

With hundreds of five-star reviews, it's no wonder that Christmas Past is one of the top Christmas podcasts ever! Rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, and I’ll send you a Christmas Past sticker and a handwritten Christmas card to say thanks. Contact me for details.

Celebrate all year round

Keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year with monthly updates. Christmas Past's email newsletter is free, non-spammy and full of Christmas news, tips, and musings, all handcrafted by yours truly, Brian Earl. And don't forget to follow Christmas Past on social media.

Follow Christmas Past