Burton on the Bay:

Remembering Christmas Past
What Ever Happened to Ribbon Candy?

At Christmas, play and make good cheer

For Christmas comes but once a year.

-Thomas Tusser, 1557

Perhaps one can get too much of a good thing, and the budget can endure only one Christmas a year, but it's a great holiday in a great season - whether it be Christmas Present, Christmases Future, even all the Christmases Past.

Which brings up the question: What ever happened to Christmas ribbon candy? You know, the candy that was red or green with thin white stripes.

If you're old enough to remember it, you might want to forget it. Admittedly, it wasn't much, but it was candy - and during the Great Depression, candy was candy, something a kid didn't get very often.

It was hard and brittle, came curled in boxes and often crumbled in shipping. But we always managed to ferret out all the crunchy broken tidbits.

If other candies were in the Christmas stocking, ribbon candy was the last to get attention. It was sticky, stuck to moist fingers, faces and anything else, colored everything it touched, but - flavored in peppermint or wintergreen - it was sweet, and it was candy and it was cheap.

If it wasn't for ribbon candy and homemade fudge, there wouldn't have been much in the line of sweets in stockings hung back when times were tough and kids still believed in Santa - at least until they went to first or second grade or had older siblings to wise them up.

What an age of innocence. Today kids don't want any of the Santa stuff, but they trot to movies to see fantasy creatures, talking pigs, space aliens and such.

Only Santa's association with filled stockings and gifts under the tree keeps St. Nick from oblivion - though his once-a-year space trip that puts him in every household at the stroke of midnight should rank him high among those buffs fascinated by extraterrestrials.

Now where is Santa's ribbon candy? Like chocolate eggs at Easter, candy kernels of corn at Halloween and firecrackers on the Fourth of July, ribbon candy was evident only once a year.

It had to be a mix of sugar, epoxy and dye. If Santa left it in the stocking and there was any moisture, it stuck to the cotton or wool. Getting it out Christmas morning meant turning the stocking inside out and the candy was coated with fuzzy fibers. But candy was candy; so what if lint clung to it?


Out of Stock and - Nearly - Memory

Ribbon candy came to mind the other day when I was browsing through a Baltimore County Rite Aid, which had an entire row of Christmas candies, next to a row of Christmas cookies, next to endless rows of toys.

Some of the sweets weren't legitimate Christmas goodies, just the usual chocolate and nutty bars available year 'round, but savvy candy manufacturers tucked them inside holiday wrappers. Ah, marketing in the good ol' USA.

I spied boxes of chocolates filled with syrup and cherries. If anything can be more sugary and cavity spawning than ribbon candy it has to be chocolate cherries, which I guess have been around as long as ribbon candy though I really can't say because in the Great Depression, the Burtons - like most other country folks - couldn't afford chocolates of any kind.

Rarely, nickel candy bars were enjoyed: Milky Ways, Oh Henrys, Baby Ruths and crunchy Butternut bars or perhaps multi-colored Necco Wafers (the blackish ones were licorice favored).

Usually, though not frequently, it was penny candy: one cent's worth of white candy cigarettes, five as I recall, with red dye at one end to give the impression of being lit, bubble gum wrapped in paper featuring a cartoon strip or a strap of wax paper to which were stuck tiny oval candies of various colors, which we'd lick off.

We didn't get such things in our stockings. Why that would have blown the illusion of a bonafide Santa Claus. He came from the North Pole, and his elves made the toys and candies; he didn't buy from Brown & Hopkins and Rosenbergs. The candy had to be something alien.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why ribbon candy was available only once a year. Had it been on store shelves at other times, young curious minds would have - perish the thought - had some troublesome questions for their parents about Santa's existence.

Ribbon candy wasn't a favorite. Even the oranges, tangerines and nuts in the stockings were eaten before the last of the sticky stuff. I recall some still around by New Years Day - though not long thereafter.

But ribbon candy was a staple at Christmas. It was a symbol of the holiday, a tradition like maligned fruit cakes of today, which have their share of sugar - and in recent years appear to be en-route to ribbon-candy obscurity.

There must have been something masochistic with parents who bought ribbon candy, though the price was right. Modern technology has come a long way since I was a kid, but it has never developed a substance that can stick to anything the way ribbon candy could.

It could stick to a sofa more firmly than barnacles to a boat hull or a zebra mussel to reservoir intake pipes. I recall Mama trying to comb it from the hair of my younger screaming sisters. Maybe that's why it was called 'ribbon': it always ended up in the hair of tots.

I can remember, too, how close Mama must have come to saying a bad word or two when she tried to remove crumbs of it fastened to the pockets of the trousers of my brother John and I.

The red and green stains on the dresses and shirts were as difficult to remove back before today's stain removers as rollerball pen marks on clothing these days. But Christmas wouldn't have been Christmas without ribbon candy.

Curiosity got the best of me in the Rite Aid, so I asked a young cashier if perhaps it was somewhere else, maybe boxes of it stacked at the end of an aisle somewhere. She looked at me as if I had asked about collar buttons or bustles.

Via mouth and motions with my fingers, I described it. She'd never heard of it, possibly not Santa either, and suggested hard peppermint balls, Aisle 7, second shelf, $2.99 a bag. But I didn't want the taste of peppermint - unless it was in ribbon candy. For a moment I just wanted to bring back old memories.

I sought out a gray-haired woman stocking shelves. Surely, she would know. "To tell the truth, I haven't even heard it mentioned for years. I'd forgotten about it myself; never did like it." she said.

"Why in the world would you want that stuff?"

"Just wanted to renew my boyhood Christmases," I responded. "I'll brush my teeth soon as I taste it, I promise."

She looked at me with the kind of expression that read "There are some Christmas memories that are best forgotten and ribbon candy is among them." I passed by the peppermint balls and chocolate cherries and left.

Happy holidays to all.

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VolumeVI Number 50
December 17-23, 1998
New Bay Times

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