by Diana Bulls
Decorating the Christmas tree is a walk down memory lane for me. Each ornament that is unwrapped has a special story. Included in this collected are “ornaments” that have been made with bits and pieces of Christmas. It was looking at these that started me thinking about popcorn.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, families still spent an evening or two threading popcorn and cranberries on strings to decorate the Christmas tree. Themed Christmas trees were pretty much unheard of back then, and a lot of tree ornaments were still homemade.
Popcorn, by the way, has been around for a long time. It is a special variety of corn, Zea mays everta, that contains a tiny drop of water in each kernel. When the popcorn is heated, the water expands and the kernel explodes and turns inside out. Researchers believe that popcorn originated in the Americas, but how and why is still a topic of debate.
In 1948, anthropologist Herbert Dick and botanist Earle Smith were exploring the Bat Cave, located in west central New Mexico. They discovered what is considered to be the oldest ears of popcorn ever found—5600 years old! The ears of corn ranged in size from smaller than a penny to about two inches. In southwestern Utah, a 1,000-year-old popped kernel of popcorn was found in a dry cave inhabited by early Pueblo Indians.
Early explorers of the Americas were introduced to popcorn by the Indians. Around 1612, French explorers in the Great Lakes region recorded that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and made a popcorn soup. Bernabé Cobo, a missionary in Peru between 1609 and 1629, wrote that Peruvian Indians toasted “a certain kind of corn until it bursts. They call it pisancalla, and they use it as a confection.” There is an unproven theory that an Indian named Quadequina brought a deerskin bag of popped corn for the first Thanksgiving feast on October 15, 1621.
We do know that Colonial families sometimes ate popcorn with sugar and cream for breakfast. In those early days, popcorn was still very much a small, home-grown crop. But when the use of the moldboard plow became commonplace in the mid-1800s, this led to the widespread planting of maize in the United States. It wasn’t long before popcorn was being planted as well. Most popcorn today is grown in Nebraska and Indiana.
Popcorn increasingly popular around holiday time—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, and especially Christmas. Because it was inexpensive, popcorn was ideal for Christmastime decorations, food, and gift giving. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, popcorn balls were one of the most popular Christmas confections. Victorians decorated fireplace mantels, doorways and Christmas trees with ornate ornaments made from popcorn balls, and most cookbooks had at least one recipe. The popularity of popcorn balls created a whole industry of popcorn ball making gadgets.
During the Depression, popcorn was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived and sales increased. Popcorn was introduced into movie theatres and is considered, by some, as “the snack that saved the movies”. During World War II, sugar was sent overseas for the troops so there wasn’t much sugar left in the United States to make candy. During that time, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual.
When television became popular, attendance at the movies dropped and so did popcorn consumption. The Popcorn Institute started an advertising campaign with Coca-Cola, Morton Salt, and some individual popcorn companies (like Jolly Time) to convince consumers that popcorn was as good to eat while watching television at home as it was at the movies. Sales rocketed. With the introduction of microwave popcorn in the 1980s, the popcorn industry saw another growth spurt.
The first branded popcorn in the United States was Jolly Time Popcorn, 1914. Jolly Time is the longest continuous holder of the Good Housekeeping Seal. Americans consume 17.3 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year. The average American eats about 68 quarts. January 19 is National Popcorn Day, and October is National Popcorn Month.
So, getting back to those popcorn strings…you will need the following:
• Popcorn—no salt or butter, and at least one day old (it will be easier to string)—make extra popcorn with salt and butter for snacking while making the popcorn strings
• Fresh cranberries (you can also used dried fruit like raisins or apricots or plums)
• Heavyweight sewing needle
• Heavyweight sewing thread or waxed dental floss
• Thread the needle with a long length of thread (or dental floss) and tie a knot at the end.
• Push the needle through a cranberry and slide the berry down the length of thread to the knotted end.
• Push the needle through a piece of popcorn and slide it down the length of thread to the knotted end.
• You can use any pattern you want—one cranberry followed by four popcorn or three cranberries followed by six popcorn—the variety is endless.
• After you have made several strings, tie them all together and hang on the Christmas tree.
• After Christmas, have the kids take the garland outside and hang on a shrub or small tree for the birds.
Enjoy and Merry Christmas!