Christmas Questions II

It’s almost Christmas, and time once again to turn our thoughts from the humdrum concerns of our everyday lives to those eternal questions that have echoed through the ages, such as…

What the heck is a “sugarplum”?

In Victorian days, neither canning nor freezing were available as a means of preserving seasonal summer fruits in the winter. Instead, fruit was preserved with sugar (although we think of sugar as food for bacteria, in high concentrations it kills bacteria by sucking the water out of them). This candied fruit was considered a great Christmas treat. Sugarplums are made by slitting plums open and heating them first in a thin syrup, then in a thick syrup, and finally drying them. Apricots and other fruit can also be candied.

I won’t be able to enjoy kissing under the mistletoe until I know: what is it?

Mistletoe is a tree parasite. Although it contains chlorophyll, it has no roots, instead attaching itself to its host with sucker-like organs called haustoria, through which it draws water and nutrients.

Mistletoe has long been credited with magical and medicinal powers. In Europe, it was used as a cure for sterility–which could be how the custom of kissing under the mistletoe originated.

What about holly?

Holly is the common name of the Aquifoliaceae family of trees and shrubs, containing about 300 species. Christmas holly is usually either English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which has spiny evergreen leaves and bright-red fruit, or American holly, Ilex opaca, which is similar but has duller, less spiny leaves. Holly makes an ideal Christmas decoration because its berries ripen in October and remain through winter.

Is it true that holly, mistletoe and poinsettias are poisonous to pets?

Mistletoe can be very toxic–fortunately, most mistletoe seen at Christmas is plastic. Holly leaves and berries can cause stomach problems, but the leaves are so tough and pointed that few pets will eat enough for problems to arise. Poinsettias, which “everybody knows” are poisonous, actually aren’t, except for a particular variety native to Hawaii; at worst they’ll cause irritation of the pet’s mouth, excess salivation and possibly vomiting. Actually, the most dangerous thing in the house at Christmas is probably tinsel. Cats in particular seem to love it, and it can cause dangerous gastrointestinal blockages.

How can you tell when a Christmas tree is fresh?

The National Christmas Tree Association suggests three ways. First, bend a few needles and branches; they should both be springy. Then slip a few centimetres of a branch through your fingers. If the tree’s fresh, the needles should stay in place. Finally, lift the tree and bang its trunk on the ground. If it’s fresh, it should only lose some brown inside needles and very few green outside ones.

Store your tree in a cool, dark place. When you put it up, cut a couple of centimetres of trunk off the end, then put the trunk in water (forget the sugar or aspirin: research shows plain water works as well as anything).

How come Christmas trees keep sucking up water even after they’ve been cut down?

The needles constantly lose water to the atmosphere. The cells in those needles contain large cavities called vacuoles, designed to hold water. As water evaporates out of the cell, the cell draws more water into the vacuole from other cells deeper inside the tree. Eventually this leads to tubules in the trunk, and from there to the water supply.

How are candy canes made?

They’re just ordinary candy that’s been bent into a crooked shape before it hardens. Candy canes date back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral handed out sugar sticks to his young singers to keep them quiet during a long Living Creche ceremony–and, in honor of the occasion, bent the sticks into the shape of shepherd’s crooks. For most of the next three centuries, candy canes were made by hand. That didn’t change until the 1950s, when a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, brother-in-law of candymaker Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia, invented a machine to make candy canes automatically. Along with packaging innovations that made it possible to transport the delicate canes (although I don’t think I’ve ever managed to unwrap one without breaking it), the new machine made McCormack’s company, Bob’s Candies, Inc., the largest producer of candy canes in the world.

There! With all your questions answered, you can now enjoy your Christmas holidays in peace.

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