All About The Origin Of The Christmas Cake

From a porridge to line people's stomachs to a cake with icing of the royal family, the Christmas cake has come a long way
Christmas chocolate bundt cake with glaze decorated with fresh berries and rosemary
Christmas chocolate bundt cake with glaze decorated with fresh berries and rosemarySea Wave/Shutterstock

The air during the festive season of Christmas is filled with the enticing aroma of freshly baked cakes and the joyous spirit of celebration. This time of the year brings forth a delightful array of sweet treats, with Christmas cakes being the undisputed star of the show. The world over there is a variety of different Christmas cakes and bakes that are created to celebrate the festive season. For instance, the stollen. Dating to 14th century Germany, stollen or Christollen, were baked on Christmas in honour of royalty and church clergymen. But the origins of the Christmas cake as we know it stems from several factors.

A Prep For Feasting

Christmas fruit cake
Christmas fruit cakeAnna Pustynnikova/Shutterstock

The traditional Christmas cake derives from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter. In the early days, the Christmas cake was actually a plum porridge which was created with the sole intention of lining the stomach. The classic Christmas plum cake has its origins in mediaeval England. Fasting throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas was a widespread ritual at the time. This was designed to prepare the body for the Christmas overindulgence and excesses. These Christmas puddings were eventually cooked and transformed into the heavy and black fruitcakes we eat today.

To 'line the stomach' for the upcoming feast, a thick porridge was cooked and devoured on Christmas Eve. It is believed that the porridge was made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey, and occasionally meat. This was the first plum cake ever made.

People began using richer ingredients around the 16th century, and oats were swiftly supplanted by flour and eggs. This grew into a pudding, which eventually resembled the fruitcake we know today. To represent the three wise men, spices from the east were added to the cake. Richer households could also afford to coat their cakes in marzipan, giving them the appearance of today's Christmas cake.

While Christmas pudding was and continues to be a holiday staple, the baked cake, which originally contained yeast, was intended for Twelfth Night rather than Christmas. The cake has played an essential role in this feast day since at least the 16th century.

Mixing ingredients for a Christmas fruit cake
Mixing ingredients for a Christmas fruit cakeAnna Shepulova/Shutterstock

The Puritans And Christmas

According to British culinary historians, the addition of marzipan and royal icing came much later, when a Christmas cake was forbidden because many Protestants throughout Europe were distrustful of Christmas celebrations in the 1600s. Twelfth Night is the final day of Christmas, and it used to be common to make an almond and marzipan-covered Twelfth Night cake. In the 1640s however, Oliver Crowell, Lord Protector of England, and other Puritans prohibited the celebration of Christmas (he also prohibited mince pies), stating that there was an excess. Because Christmas Day was still a public holiday with some feasting allowed, people simply made a Christmas cake and covered it in marzipan instead, and thus the Christmas cake was born.

Queen Victoria prohibited 12th night celebrations on January 5th in the late 1800s since it was not a Christian event. Confectioners of the day lost revenue due to the loss of this feast day, so they remade the 12th night cake as a decorative iced cake for Christmas celebrations, and so the present day Christmas cake was formed.

The Royal Icing

Because the British royal family used it for their wedding cakes, the traditional icing for Christmas cakes was dubbed 'royal' icing at the time. The initial icing was similar to royal icing, but it was placed over the top of the cake and then returned to the oven to harden. The end product was a flat, sparkling surface similar to that of a frozen lake, therefore the term icing.

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