Christmas-ese: the stories of Christmas curiosities
Modern holiday culture is so chock full of allusions to days gone by that there seems to be no end to the things you might want to investigate further: the various names for Santa, Nowell versus Noel, the connection between mistletoe and kissing, the significance of the items in the song ‘‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’,’ and so on. Here, I have gathered info on several other Yuletide curiosities:
Whether carolers live in regions where Christmas might actually bring snow, they continue to snap their fingers to ‘‘Winter Wonderland’,’ a 1934 song by Felix Bernard with lyrics by Richard B. Smith. Along with the characteristic nostalgia that Christmas songs bring, they are treasure troves of outdated phrases and references that have caused many a person to ponder questions such as, ‘‘Who the heck is Parson Brown?’.’ When looking up this very question, I’ll admit I was kind of let down to find out that Parson Brown is simply a generic term for a minister, usually of the Protestant sort. So our well-known parson is the John Doe (or the Joe Bloggs) of the clergy world, the Joe Shmoe of a popular Christmas tune. Not only is there no clever backstory for the mysterious Parson Brown, but the poor guy is replaced by the phrase circus clown in a 1953 version of the song.
‘‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ev’rywhere you go, take a look in the five-and-ten, it’s glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes that glow.’’ This is a familiar opening to a favorite Christmas tune, but what are these hopalong boots that are mentioned two stanzas later? Well, remember that scene in the movie Parenthood (1989) when the little boy stands in the bedroom with nothing on but a cowboy hat and holster (0:20 mark in the video)? That’s what came to my mind when researching the boots referenced in this 1951 song. All the toddler in the movie needed were some hopalong boots like the ones that were, as the lyrics go, ‘the wish of Barney and Ben’. An outdated term, hopalongs are children’s cowboy boots that get their name from Hopalong Cassidy, a fictional Western hero from the early to mid-1900s. The character had a wooden leg and was known to ‘hop’ along with a limp.
This holiday treat has remained in the vernacular because of its mention in the popular Clement C. Moore poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (1823), better known as ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’. Most people know the line well: ‘The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’ But how many know what sugarplums are? Despite being termed plums, sugarplums are not fruit at all. Unlike Mr Moore, Oxford Dictionaries lists this storied confection as one word, an archaic one: sugarplum — a small round sweet of flavored boiled sugar. Traditionally, the sugarplum was a comfit, a hard candy with a nut or seed at the center. Modern versions of sugarplums, if you can even find them in candy aisles, look like a cross between gum drops and those powdery pastilles that come in pocket-sized tins.
Currier and Ives
‘It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives’ — so goes the fifth verse of the 1948 holiday song ‘Sleigh Ride.’ Who are Currier and Ives anyway? Is this duo the precursor to Harry and David? After all, they are both associated with holiday treats. In terms of its reference in the song, Currier and Ives is an it, not a they. It was a New York City printmaking firm started by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives in 1834. The firm became famous for its scores of affordable lithographs depicting scenes of everyday American life. Today, many of Currier and Ives’ winter scenes are found on mass-produced Christmas items. Now, we can all hark back to mid-19th-century life as we pop open that tin of butter cookies given to us by our business associates.
The term bûche de Noël, or yule log, immediately conjures visions of an old-world hut, complete with a gnome family stirring a pot over the fire. Who else would have thought to bake a cake in the shape of a tree stump? As with other ‘Christmas’ traditions, the burning of a Yule log predates the first Christmas. Originally a Nordic tradition, the burning of a large, hand-selected log was part of annual Winter Solstice festivals. In the 19th century, when the practice began to wane, people started baking cake versions of yule logs. Known as bûches de Noël, these fancy Swiss cake rolls (think Little Debbie’s version, only bigger and more decorative) are made of sponge cake rolled in cream and topped with chocolate bark and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar to mimic snow. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive one this Christmas with a garnish of marzipan mushrooms. Because who doesn’t like eating sweets that remind them of fungi?