Think about how many times you’ve heard that “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” song. (Quick side note- apparently it’s called “The Christmas Song,” which is vague as hell, and was originally written in July by a guy who thought he could beat the heat by thinking about winter) Now, if you’re like me, your Christmas traditions don’t really have anything to do with chestnuts. In fact, until very recently, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chestnut in person, nor could I tell you what one actually tastes like (Starbucks’ “chestnut praline” isn’t strong enough to taste like anything more than coffee with syrup in it). So, where did this connection come from? And where did it go? Where did you come from, Chestnut-eye Joe?
Turns out, the latter part is a little easier to track down an answer for. It’s blight! And capitalism! (which is a blight in of itself lmao)
Throughout much of American history, the American chestnut tree was one of the most common trees in the country, and the nuts were commonly enjoyed throughout fall and winter by the poor and rich alike. In 1904, it was decided to introduce Japanese chestnut trees to the U.S., since they typically had double the yield of nuts, and thus double the profit (Why bother when chestnut trees were already so prevalent the nuts were practically free? Who knows.). Problem is, these fungal-resistant trees accidentally acted as a carrier for the chestnut blight. By 1940 (5 years before the writing of The Christmas Song), nearly all of the estimated 4 billion indigenous, pre-blight chestnut trees had been killed off. Sure, chestnuts were probably still available if you looked for them (the Japanese chestnut trees continued to be unaffected, after all), but they weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they had once been.
Ok, so, that explains their decline, but what did they have to do with Christmas, specifically, in the first place?
Well, probably nothing.
Remember that aside I made about how that song started out as some guy daydreaming about winter to distract him from the summer heat? It was never about Christmas. Sometimes it feels more mystifying or symbolic to attribute most of our Christmas traditions to old pagan traditions that got appropriated, but it turns out those kinds of blanket-statements can’t cover everything. Sometimes a guy makes a list of cold-weather things to trick himself into ignoring a heat wave, then he turns it into a Christmas song, then people’s nostalgia for that old song outlasts the things the song itself was being nostalgic for, and everything just kinda blurs together. I guess this is just one of those moments where you have to accept that asking these kinds of questions is more about the journey than the destination.
Tune in next week to see me figure out what the fuck an “A-wassailing” is.