Mixed nuts are popular fare at Christmas. Most selections contain Almonds, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Brazil Nuts and Pecan Nuts. Why do we eat nuts at Christmas? It goes further than simple winter availability. And no, it’s not the association with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet with its story set on Christmas Eve.
Giving out Nuts predates Christianity. It dates back to Saturnalian customs. Nuts were traditionally seen as a symbol of fruitfulness. On his feast day of 6th December, St Nicholas throws nuts to children. Alternatively, he puts nuts and apples in their shoes.
Nuts were used to explain the Trinity. The Father is represented by the shell, the Son by the skin and the Holy Ghost by the kernel. Alternatively, the Saviour was depicted as all three (shell, skin and kernel) to denote his bones, skin and soul.
13 French Desserts
Nuts are also symbolic in the Provençal tradition of 13 desserts. (See last year’s Advent Botany blog in the link below). In this custom, certain nuts represent monastic orders. Almonds represent the Carmelites; whereas Walnuts and Hazelnuts symbolise the Augustinians. Their sombre brown colours are intended to recall the orders’ dull-coloured robes and vows of poverty.
Almonds feature prominently in Christmas recipes. For example, Almonds are an essential layer in Christmas cake between the cake and icing. They are also a key ingredient in German Christmas recipes like Stollen and Cinnamon Stars, Zimtsterne (see earlier 2022 Advent Botany blog). Amaretto is a popular almond-flavoured Italian liqueur.
A Nordic tradition is to eat rice porridge at Christmas. A single blanched Almond is placed in the porridge pot. It is said that whoever gets the Almond is likely to be married within the next year. A variation on this custom is to give the porridge winner a marzipan pig. Pigs are considered to be lucky. Almonds are also believed to be a good luck symbol. This is why sugared Almonds are often given to guests at weddings.
Almonds are believed to have originated in the Near East and spread to the Mediterranean. Domestication of wild species took place during the Bronze Age in Greece and Cyprus. The Romans brought Almonds to Britain. Today, they are grown in the Near East, southern Europe, California, Australia and South Africa. Almonds grow on small to medium trees with the botanical name of Prunus amygdalus (Synonym: Prunus dulcis) in the Rosaceae or Rose family. The velvety fruit is similar to peach but it splits open to reveal its edible seed.
Herbalists used to prescribe a remedy according to a plant’s resemblance to the afflicted human body part under the ancient Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of the Walnut, this meant that it was recommended for the brain. Modern science has revealed that Walnuts do indeed have benefits for brain function.
Walnuts are native to eastern Asia, southern Europe, and North and South America. The best Walnuts are considered to be Juglans regia from Persia. The genus refers to the all-powerful Roman God Jupiter and the epithet suggests a royal species. The nut was cultivated by the ancient Persians, Greeks and Romans. The Romans brought it to France and Britain. The Anglo-Saxons thought it originated from Gaul. They referred to it as the Gaul nut or wealh, meaning something foreign or alien.
Victorian Gilded Walnuts
The Victorians used to hang gilded Walnuts tied with red ribbons on the upper branches of their Christmas trees. Sometimes they would hide a small gift inside the empty shells. These gilded Walnuts were supposed to remain hanging on the tree until New Year’s Day.
Bulgarian Walnut Custom
There is a special Bulgarian custom associated with Walnuts. They are seen as an essential element of a Bulgarian Christmas meal. Each member of the family cracks one open in order to determine their fate for the next year. If the walnut is good, the year will be a successful one. If the Walnut is bad, then bad luck is forecast for the person who cracked it open.
Hazelnuts are widely used in Christmas confectionery. Praline chocolates are particularly popular at Christmas in our household. In fact, Hazelnuts have been popular since prehistoric times and were cultivated by the Romans.
Hazel trees are native to Britain (see previous Advent Botany blog on Hazel, Corylus avellana). The Celts regarded Hazel as a magical tree. In Ireland it was regarded as the Tree of Knowledge. Hazel offered protection against spirits, evil and abduction by fairies. Its wood is perfect for use as a divining rod. With so many Pagan beliefs surrounding Hazel, monasteries felt obliged to Christianise it. And so, St Philbert’s feast day was created on 22nd August as hazelnuts ripen. Filbert is an alternative name for Hazelnut.
Brazil nuts come from tall trees of Bertholletia excelsa in the Amazon jungle spanning the countries of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Guiana, Peru and Venezuela. The harvested Brazil nuts, unlike many of the cultivated nuts mentioned in this blog, come almost entirely from wild trees in Brazil or Peru.
As well as appearing in Christmas mixed nut selections, they are also coated in chocolate and sold as Chocolate Brazils. Brazil nuts are so tough to crack that there is even a YouTube video on how to position them and hit them with a mallet so that they open without crushing the entire nut.
Pecans are native to North America. Native North Americans regarded the Pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, as a symbol of the Great Spirit. It was an important food source for them. Their original name for the Pecan meant that it had such a hard shell that it had to be cracked open with a stone.
Today, Pecans are harvested by shaking cultivated trees with machines and sweeping or vacuuming up the fallen nuts. Before commercial sales, they are tumbled and polished to make them more shiny and consistent in shape.
In America, Pecans may be used to stuff the turkey and then, of course, there is the famous Pecan pie.
Unlike many of the foods associated with Christmas feasting, nuts are good for you. They contain protein, B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals, including iron, potassium, selenium, magnesium, zinc and copper. Although nuts are high in fat, they mainly contain healthier unsaturated fat. There is an increasing range of nut milks available that are considered more sustainable for the planet than dairy products. An interesting range of nut roast recipes is available online for vegetarians or for those who wish to reduce meat products in their diet. Our ancestors appreciated the value of nuts and it seems that nut consumption will rise again in the future.
© Karen Andrews
Previous Nut-related Advent Botany Blogs
References and Further Reading
- Alphonso, Christina (2014): Cobill Nuts, Christmastide, and The Cloisters. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 4 December 2014.
- BABO (2021): How to Crack Brazil Nuts. Get Whole Nut, Not Pieces (How to Crack Nuts #1). YouTube. Babo Home & Garden.
- Bacon, Josephine et al. (2017): The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables & Herbs. Chartwell Books, New York.
- Bowler, Gerry (2013): Why are nuts associated with the holidays? UM Today News. University of Manitoba. 29 November 2013.
- British Heart Foundation (2022): Are nuts good for you? Heart Matters.
- Culham, Alastair (2017): #AdventBotany Day 17: A tough nut to crack. Culham Research Group. 17 December 2017.
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Ed. Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press.
- Grigson, Geoffrey (1975): The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon Publishing, Oxford.
- Kew (2022): Prunus amygdalus Batsch. Plants of the World Online. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
- Maisie Jane’s (2017): Why are Nuts Traditional for Christmas? 26 November 2017
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food plants of the World . An illustrated guide. Timber Press. Portland, Oregon, USA.
- Victoriana magazine (1996-2015): Gilded Walnuts: How to Make Victorian Christmas Decorations.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited