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Visions Of What

Sugarplums revealed

It's hard to have a vision of something if you don't know what it is. That's why that "visions of sugarplums" line always baffled me. What exactly is a sugarplum? As a typical 6-year-old budding ballerina, I was in my ballet school's version of The Nutcracker Suite, but the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" didn't offer any insights.

Some sources indicate that sugarplums were originally sugar-coated coriander, "a treat that offered a sweet start and then a spicy burst of flavor." Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, and it's often used in gingerbread and cookies. Interestingly, The Tales of the Arabian Nights mentions coriander as an aphrodisiac (hence the "visions"?). Maybe that's why the sugarplum evolved to include small bits of fruit, and the dictionary defines it as a G-rated "small candy in the shape of a ball or disk; a sweetmeat; a bonbon."

It's also possible that sugarplums were, in fact, actual plums preserved in sugar. By the mid-16th century, sugar started being refined in London, significantly lowering its price. It was now more affordable to use sugar to preserve the sweet fruits of summer so they could be enjoyed later in the year, especially during the holiday season when they were a special treat.

These explanations provide at least a frame of reference for envisioning sugarplums, but how about something else you hear about only during the holiday season -- wassail?

The word "wassail" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon phrase "waes hael," meaning "good health." Although its origins are unknown, it's mentioned in texts dating as far back as the 14th century. Back then, wassail was a beverage made of mulled ale, roasted apples, nuts, eggs, spices and curdled cream -- not sure if that says "good health" to me. The ingredients in wassail as we know it now can vary, but generally they include sweetened ale or wine heated with spices and roasted apples. Wassail is usually served from a communal bowl -- think punch.

But wassail is not merely a hearty potable. It's also an activity. To wassail is to celebrate noisily or to propose a toast. In the early days of wassailing, the stuff was poured on post-harvest orchards and crops to bless them for the coming spring and to ward off evil spirits. Now it's more associated with good cheer and well wishing -- and that "Here We Go A-Wassailing" song.

Now you can get through this season of wonder without wondering about sugarplums and wassail. And to all a good night.

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