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What Dates Have to Do With Christmas, the Temple of Dendur, and ‘America’s Arabia’

Dates often get served up around the holidays, but the fruit’s religious significance is bigger than you might think

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A handful of purple dates topped with chocolate and crushed nuts on a cutting board, next to a brown paper gift tag and a glass jar of peanut butter. Katerina Tuveleva/Shutterstock

Dates — especially in the United Kingdom, but also in the U.S. — are often associated with Christmastime, showing up in fruitcakes, served stuffed with goat’s cheese and wrapped with bacon, or just sharing a side plate with dried apricots and prunes.

On this week’s episode of Gastropod, hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley explore what exactly dates have to do with the winter holidays, as well as the fascinating history of how date palms made it from North Africa and the Middle East to the Coachella Valley in California, which was once thought to be “America’s Arabia.”

Why dates show up a lot around the holidays is partly to do with their association with the Biblical lands: dates are found all over the Middle East and North Africa, and Joseph and Mary might well have relied on them as a portable energy source while wandering the desert. Dried fruit is traditional at this time of year in much of the Northern Hemisphere, stored from the harvest bounty.

In the Middle East, dates and religion have been associated even longer: Nawal Nasrallah, who wrote the book Dates: A Global History, says they were a favorite food of the prophet Mohammed and they even hold a special place in the Adam and Eve origin story. In the Islamic version, God asks Adam to bury his hair and nail trimmings, which then sprout into a date tree. Satan then weeps tears of jealousy that turn into the thorns of the date palm. During Ramadan, it’s still traditional to break fast with a date, and date sales spike during the holy month.

Today, date palm trees are in danger of extinction in parts of the world; this episode, Gastropod tells the story of how one Native American couple likely saved the Medjool date for the world. Americans first experimented with growing dates in the late 1800s and early 1900s, spurred by the western world’s obsession with ancient Egypt and biblical archeology. The Coachella Valley in Indio, California turned out to be one of the few places in the U.S. that date palms could thrive, leading to the bizarre — and problematic — rebranding of the area as “America’s Arabia” to increase tourism, complete with camel races and “hoochie-coochie” dances.

Listen to the entire episode to learn more about why it make sense to play the field when it comes to dates, how they can take a hot dog to the next level, and the fruit’s curious connection to the Temple of Dendur — which is famously housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but was almost sent to the California desert instead.