Another Christmas Another Fruit Cake …
Here’s a slice of fruit cake history
The Mesopotamians were first to have a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year beginning about 3500 BCE. Later the midwinter festival of the ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus. It was 12 days long, reflecting the 12-month Egyptian calendar. This concept took firm root in both Babylonian/Persian and then Roman cultures. Constantine declared that Christ’s birthday would be December 25 instead of January 6 and by 567 AD, most Christians had adopted this date. Church leaders proclaimed the 12 days from December 25 to Epiphany, January 6, as a sacred, festive season. Nailing down the origins of both the 12-day holiday and what the holiday bread/cake represents is difficult.
The Universe as a Fruit Cake … read more
Christians of different cultures, with a blatant chasm between Eastern and Western branches, celebrate the connected days of festivities; often know as advent, at different times for different periods. The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ opening those little windows in their advent calendars. The modern traditional celebration begins on December 25; Christmas Day ushers in twelve days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany, while some still choose the fourth Sunday before Christmas as their starting day and buy the celebratory relic accordingly to begin their search for the “prize” inside.
The world’s oldest known fruitcake made an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 2003 at which time Leno said of the piece he ate “it smelled good but was a little “crystallized”. It was baked on Nov. 27, 1878, by Fidelia Ford for the following Thanksgiving. She passed away before serving but multiple generations of her family, has held on to it till 2003 and I don’t if it’s still lurking in some closet or squirreled away in a freezer somewhere..
In England … it was originally made of oats and boiled in a muslin bag, then macerated in rum, brandy or some sweet wine and left to hang for weeks or months. As the population became more monied and milling technology improve its main ingredient became flour with lots of sugar and molasses the latter imparting the dark almost black color.
In France … the finder of the Jesus figure or a porcelain bean baked in a cake becomes king or queen for the duration of the holiday period, or the day depending on the province, and gets to wear a crown. Think Quasimodo for a day, then you have to buy next year’s cake. In addition, these beans or baby Jesus figures even have collectible status.
In Italy … the custom morphed into the Panettone, in England and the States the dreaded fruitcake and in Germany the holiday Stollen.
In Spain, and Portugal … a bread ring with both a Jesus figurine and a bean. The presentation is a circle like those in Panama. Here it can contain a baby Jesus, a bean or some other trinket. The recipient gets the coronet and pays for the Kings Bread ring. Today it’s usually an ovoid large enough to serve at parties.
In Greece … they often put in a gold coin, perhaps one with a little lesser value today and the traditions there are decidedly different from Western Christianity. Both Greece and Russia use the Julian calendar that means certain holidays or celebrations can fall on different days each year.
In Mexico … the leavened product is a Kings ring and the discoverer of the baby Jesus within traditionally takes this prize to the church on February 2 for a blessing and later hosts a tamale feed. Mexico holds the Guinness record for a 12 ton, 1200 foot long example that took 3,000 bakers 21,000 man-hours to construct.
In New Orleans … it’s a Kings cake sold to the public for consumption and festive display. A baby Jesus also plays a role here and the cake is usually around from Epiphany until the conclusion of Mardi gras. If you get the baby, you buy next year’s cake.
The Kings cake is circular or ovoid flour based artifact revered and made differently in numerous Christian cultures around the globe. It often incorporates placing an image of a baby Jesus or some other token inside the construct that, when found by one of the participating celebrants, bestows certain duties or responsibilities. The bean in the cake custom originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia and it eventually morphed its way into the early Christian Epiphany celebration and feast. The Epiphany is when the gentile world, represented by the three Persian alchemists/astrologists became aware of the Christ’s birth. These three wise men, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, brought gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold, for the baby Jesus. Today the candied fruits, colored icings and hued sugars that garnish the myth-laden cake or bread represent these gifts.