If the supermarket shelves are anything to go by, the main flavour of Christmas here is peppermint. It seems odd to me, but that’s because the culture I come from associates dried fruit and cloves with Christmas, not peppermint.
However, it’s not so much the peppermintiness that confuses me, as its colour. Why, oh why, is it red? I’ve never seen red mint growing in nature. I’ve asked virtually everyone in the Bay Area and no-one can tell me, so I’ve come up with my own theory.
It’s because of wintergreen.
In Britain, mint is mint. There’s no need to differentiate between peppermint and spearmint, because chocolate is always peppermint and toothpaste is always spearmint. End of story. But here, there are three types of mint, and your toothpaste could be any of them. One of the options is wintergreen.
To all the Brits who’ve never heard of it, wintergreen tastes like Deep Heat smells. Seriously. It tastes as if you’re consuming muscle relaxant. It’s indescribably foul and worth avoiding at all costs. There must have been some Americans who felt the same way a long time ago, because once upon a time, someone here invented a colour coding system for mint, and I assume it was specifically so that no-one would have to eat wintergreen by mistake. Spearmint must have come first, because it managed to secure green. Wintergreen is blue. And peppermint is red.
From the colour coding of the flavour, it was a small step to colour all the peppermint-flavoured foods themselves. You don’t see spearmint- or wintergreen-flavoured foods at Christmas, but you do see an awful lot of peppermint. And, therefore, an awful lot of red Christmas food.
My theory may be a load of hot air, but at least the colour coding means I know how to avoid wintergreen.