There has been feasting and festivity in late December for much longer than Christianity has been with us. It is a natural time of year to hunker down against the cold and dark and enjoy some good cheer with food stores still relatively plentiful from the autumn harvest. It was also the time to mark the passing of the shortest day of the year and to pay tribute to the gods and the sun, ensuring that light and fertility returned for another season. The Romans celebrated right through from mid December to New Year, with the festivals of Saturnalia and Kalendae (both, unsurprisingly, brought much feasting and merriment). The Scandinavians and Norsemen celebrated the winter solstice with feast and fire, and the early Church endorsed a twelve-day period of rest and commemoration which spanned the Nativity to Epiphany (Twelfth Night, or the day that Christ was presented to the Wise Men or Magi). But how did cakes and other sweet foods get in on the act?
A traditional Christmas pudding. Image from christmasstockimages.com
It is likely that cake actually came quite late to the party. Feasts were usually richer versions of the usual fare, that is meats and wines. The closest antecedent of the fruited Christmas cake was probably a boiled porridge or mincemeat – literally minced meat rather than the sanitized and sweetened dried fruit mixture we know today – and which was gradually spiced and sweetened until it became the boiled Christmas pudding which is still brought to the table, aflame with brandy, at the end of the Christmas meal. Mince pies were also popular, and formed part of the tradition of alms giving, or wassailing, which sometimes involved small cakes, too, although there is no evidence that these were a special Christmas variety. But the most direct ancestor of the Christmas Cake was probably a type of meat-and-dried-fruit porridge, which gradually became thickened with flour until it was a sort of boiled cake. Not as appealing as our modern baked fruit cakes, is it?
The jury is still out on the appeal of the Christmas Cake, though. Generally beloved in Britain (a hangover from our chilly and sugar-rationed past, perhaps?), in America Fruit Cakes like the ones we eat at Christmas are something of a joke. Tonight host Johnny Carson once quipped that there is just one Fruitcake in existence which is passed on and on and on …There, Christmas Cakes tend to be a good bit lighter, while in the White House, a rich yeast cake known as a Presidents Cake has been served at midnight since Lincoln. In Italy, meanwhile, the light and yeasted Panettone is favoured; the Germans have their Stollen, which is also yeasted, but a good bit denser from the core of marzipan running through it (the cake is supposed to represent Jesus in his swaddling blankets). The French like their gingerbready Pain D’Epice, while the Greeks also favour a breaded cake, the Christopsoma. Much of the Far East has adopted the Western style of Christmas cake, albeit in sponge rather than fruited form, but have given it a kitschy twist with elaborate decoration. And Chile pays a debt to German immigrants with its Pan de Pasalla, which resembles an unfruited Stollen. So, as you sit down to your Christmas meal this year, have a think: what does your cake say about you 😉 ?