COLUMN: The Magic of Christmas is Sweet

By Candace Nelson - 6:48 PM

Here is my latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Christmas is magical for many reasons - the lights, the gifts, the memories, and, of course, the sweets.

In Appalachia, though, that magic is literal for some who believe that any sweets baked on Christmas Day have special powers to prevent and heal illnesses.

“[Many believe that] any loaves of bread and cakes made on Christmas Day have healing abilities. Many would preserve these baked goods so they could be used to cure illnesses throughout the year,” according to the website Got Mountain Life.

Atlas Obscura corroborates this claim, noting that colonists who settled in Appalachia from Scotland, England, Ireland and other areas brought with them Christian cultural practices that provided a source of hope during harsh living conditions and tough work:

“By the 19th century, an array of rituals and superstitions had come to be associated with Christmas, the majority of which were in the interest of good health and prosperity.

One was the belief that anything baked on Christmas Day carried the ability to heal and prevent illness. For this reason, some families would bake extra cakes and loaves of bread, and preserve them to be eaten throughout the coming months of the year.”

While the origins of this folk tale are unclear, spices like ginger and cloves do contain medicinal properties and were often used in cookies, cakes, pies, breads and other well-loved treats like apple stack cake.

One of the most common treats made on Christmas Day was fruitcake, which was often adapted to accommodate ingredients available at the time. Often, it was a dense mixture of dried fruits, nuts and whiskey or moonshine.

In true Appalachian fashion, sharing those treats with friends and neighbors is part of the tradition. If a dozen visitors — a reference to the 12 apostles — join for slices of cake or other treats, it is supposed to bring 12 months of good luck.

Food plays an important role in many Christmas traditions around the world, including in Appalachia. Whether or not these baked goods proved to heal folks physically may be up for debate, but there is no question that they helped create memories and strengthen bonds with loved ones - in the most delicious way.

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