The Symbolic Reason Chestnuts Are Eaten On Christmas

When you think about traditional Christmas treats, shortbread cookies and pumpkin pie might come to mind. But, not too long ago, folks were ringing in the holiday with a much less decadent food: roasted chestnuts. If you've never tried one, the mouthful is mealy and the taste is a little, well, lacking. It isn't a spectacularly flavorful treat; most of the flavor is imparted by the roasting process, which adds a cozy smokiness. But, if "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" is the first line of an anthem called "The Christmas Song," there has to be a good reason why, right? In fact, December 14 is celebrated as National Roast Chestnuts Day.

Today, chestnuts might not be the first treat you think of around Christmastime, but the tradition is far from dead. Street vendors still sell warm chestnuts on Fifth Avenue before Thanksgiving even rolls around. But whether or not you try 'em out for yourself, as you knock back a glass of eggnog this season, give the humble chestnut (and its humble history) a second thought. Whether they know it or not, here's why folks eat chestnuts around Christmas.

The season of giving

Chestnuts are historically a subsistence food, says The Spruce Eats, having a comparable nutritional value to corn and rice. According to the National Post, chestnut trees once made up 40% of North America's forests, and produced an estimated 20 million pounds of chestnuts every year. So the mealy nut was once omnipresent, extremely storable, and affordable.

Much like rice and canned foods today, the poor were given chestnuts on Martinstag aka the Feast of Saint Martin, which falls on  December 11. Saint Martin was a transient Catholic saint, per news outlet DW that was born during the 14th century in present-day Hungary. He later lived in Italy, where he was drafted into the nation's army. 

The story goes that, while stationed in Rome, Saint Martin cut his jacket in half to share with a fellow soldier in the wintertime. This act became known as "the Dividing of the Cloak," and it's celebrated on Martinstag with songs and bonfires as an act of goodwill. Handing out chestnuts also became a Martinstag activity, symbolizing the saint's yuletide goodwill, which led to its emergence as an unlikely, but meaningful Christmas tradition.

Roasting chestnuts are a popular part of the holiday season for Italian families, says La Cucina Italiana. And, in a stunning reversal, according to National Today, most of the chestnuts enjoyed by U.S. consumers today are imported from Italy.