What are your favorite foods this time of year?

Holiday foods remind us of beloved traditions and memories from childhood to present. Each family has their own unique customs, and savoring the seasonal smells and flavors is something we look forward to each year.

Many food traditions originated centuries ago. Here are a few of the sweeter foods and some folklore associated with the Yuletide season:

Gingerbread — From loaves to men to houses, gingerbread is one of the most popular Christmas treats. The first gingerbread recipe dates back to Greece in 2400 BC, passing through Europe with cookies made and sold at Medieval fairs and moving to the Christmas season with ornate gingerbread houses made in Germany. Gingerbread houses became popular when the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel in 1812, a story of two children abandoned in the forest who found an edible house made of bread. This tradition continues today with kids making gingerbread cookies and houses and sugar cookies as a fun holiday pastime.

Fruitcake — This dish appears in a variety of forms in many countries around the holidays, with the oldest recipe dating back 2000 years in Rome. Fruitcake is a sturdy dessert made from fruit and nuts soaked or dried in sugar and added to a cake batter along with alcohol or wrapped in a cloth soaked with alcohol. Fruitcake can be preserved for a long time, since the sugar acts as a preservative and the alcohol kills mold and bacteria. It also has a reputation that over time it can become bad tasting and needs to be thrown out due to air exposure. If needed, celebrate the holiday on Jan. 3 (or Jan. 7 in some traditions), which is Fruitcake Toss Day.

Candy Canes — Legend has it a German choirmaster in the 1600s gave children “sugar sticks’ to keep them quiet during long Christmas services. He had the bakers bend the sticks to the letter J for Jesus, with the red and white color representing blood and sacrifice and adding the sweet flavor hyssop (its modern cousin peppermint is used now), representing purity.

Chestnuts — This nutritious food dates back to prehistoric times. As a winter crop, it is traditionally eaten around the world and often sold on street corners in cities and villages in Europe, Asia and Africa. Chestnuts became associated with the Christmas season in the United States when the jazz singer Nat King Cole sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire from “The Christmas Song,” originally released in 1946.

Citrus fruit — Many citrus fruits come into season in the winter months. Legend has it that the bishop St. Nick heard that a poor man’s daughters were too poor to marry, so he threw small bags of gold down their chimney. The bags of gold fell into the girls’ stockings, which were hung by the fire to dry. This story developed into the tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas, and parents replaced the gold with oranges as a blessing of good fortune for their children.

Families make different types of traditional dishes that get passed down from generation to generation, and they may begin new traditions with friends and new family members.

Whatever your traditions, enjoy the traditional foods and time together, and count all the many blessings the season brings. Happy Holidays!

For more information on adopting healthier lifestyle changes, contact Kitty Finklea, lifestyle coach, registered dietitian and personal trainer at McLeod Health and Fitness Center, 843-777-3000.

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