A clear plastic tree form that slotted together, more oaklike than traditional Christmas-y conifer in shape, is one of HGS founder Matthew White’s most vivid holiday memories from childhood. No wonder, since what could be more memorable than being allowed to stick soft, fresh gumdrops on the tips of each “branch,” eating as you go? That gumdrop tree, and holiday sweets in general, were the topic of Matthew’s latest public-radio segment, which you can stream here.
Prefer to read about this favorite object? The script of the gumdrop-tree segment from Matthew’s weekly program “The Shape of Things,” was produced with RobinHoodRadio.com in nearby Sharon, Connecticut, “the smallest NPR station in the nation.” The entire show archive is at this link.
Gumdrop Tree by Matthew White
The shapes of Christmas sweets can bring back the heightened childhood memories of anticipation and sugar shock. Many of those goodies have remained classics through the decades, some even dating back centuries.
In the mid 1960’s we always had ribbon candy that came in various colored stripes. It was shaped like scallopy swirls that looked like Venetian glass. These seemed to be at everyone’s house collecting dust in a bowl on the coffee table. I don’t recall anyone actually eating the stuff.
Candy-canes remain a standard, with red and white peppermint stripes spiraling up each shaft and crook. Legend has it this sweet that was invented in 17th century Germany.
At our house growing up, we had a big collection of aluminum cookie cutters in a whole assortment of shapes. Bells, stars, stockings, angels. Mom would start baking sugar cookies right after Thanksgiving, and we’d all gather around the kitchen table to decorate them with bright-colored frosting and sugar sprinkles. They would be carefully packed into boxes to be mailed to our cousins who lived in New Jersey, Oregon, and Arizona.
But you can’t have Christmas cookies without gingerbread men. These people-shaped cookies seemed to have originated in 16th century England in the court of Elizabeth the 1st. Breathing in the rich aroma of butter, molasses and ground ginger while piping white frosting onto the deep brown body of a gingerbread man is one of those wonderful holiday rituals.
What was big in the 1960’s was divinity, a rather odd sweet made from egg whites, sugar and nuts. This hand-made candy was often tinted with food coloring to make it pale pink or green, or it could be left in plain white. The free-form shape of the candy, like small drop biscuits before they are baked, would often be put into cylindrical Libby glass jars with clear, pointed lids. These would be given as hostess gifts with a shiny bow on top. If you had never seen this kind of candy before, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a jar of hand-made soap.
Marzipan was fairly exotic in our circles growing up, and misunderstood, too. The beautiful miniature fruit shapes were lovely to look at, but one bite told us that this was grown-up candy and an acquired taste. (A taste that I have since acquired.)
There was always the ubiquitous fruitcake, weighty and dense with flavors I didn’t care for. The round form fit perfectly into the tin that it arrived in. As a child, cake meant frosting, so this dessert was one I was happy to leave to others.
There was one little ritual that I loved, and that was when Momma brought down our gumball tree. Among our Christmas decorations was a small, clear plastic tree. It was not an evergreen tree form, but instead was shaped like an oak. It was in three parts, two flat silhouettes of a tree, each exactly the same shape, and a shallow scalloped dish, also in clear plastic. The two flat tree forms would slot together to create the semblance of a three-dimensional tree, and then clip into a holder in the bottom of the shallow bowl. When assembled, it looked like a crystal tree, in a low, round planter.
Momma would then open a big bag of gumdrops and each of us would carefully stick the soft, fresh candies on the end of each pointed branch until the tree was covered in the dome-shaped, sugar-encrusted, brightly colored sweets. The remaining gumdrops were poured into the bowl. Of course the process allowed us to munch on them as we worked, which was part of the fun.
We didn’t live in a house where sweets were a daily occurrence, so to have candy sitting out in such a splendidly tempting display, was a treat on every level. It’s interesting that neither gumdrops nor plastic oak trees are particularly “Christmassy,” yet this one little thing, perhaps above all, is what told me that this was a very special time of year.