Christmas Trivia - Fruit Cake

Why are fruit cakes traditionally made and exchanged at Christmas time?

Fruitcake is a cake made with chopped candied fruit and/or dried fruit, nuts, and spices, and sometimes soaked in spirits.

The earliest recipe from ancient Rome lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added.

Fruit cakes proliferated all over Europe. Recipes varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients.

Fruitcakes are closely associated with Christmas.  In Canada, fruitcakes are even called "Christmas Cakes." This is because in centuries past fruit was considered a delicacy, and so was served primarily at special occasions, such as at Christmas.

And because fresh fruits were less available during the winter, preserved fruits -- such as the dried, candied fruits found in fruitcakes -- would naturally be associated with the Christmas season.

Finally, the arrival of relatively inexpensive sugar from the American Colonies made candied fruit increasingly affordable.

Fruitcakes therefore became an affordable delicacy peculiarly appropriate for the winter season. As a result, the proliferation of fruitcakes at Christmas celebrations was nearly inevitable.

Mail-order fruit cakes in America began in 1913. As the commercial fruitcake industry grew, nuts became more prevalent in the recipes, most likely because the major US commercial fruit cake bakeries were located in the south, where nuts (especially pecans) were inexpensive and abundant.

Most American mass-produced fruit cakes are alcohol-free, but traditional recipes are saturated with liqueurs or brandy and covered in powdered sugar, both of which prevent mold. If a fruit cake contains alcohol, it could remain edible for many years.

In the United States, the fruit cake is often derided. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would joke that there really is only one fruitcake in the world, passed from family to family. Manitou Springs, Colorado, has hosts the Great Fruitcake Toss on the first Saturday of every January.

Like Figgy Pudding, the fruitcake recalls an older time when different foods were available and people's tastes were accordingly different.  Although fruitcakes may be decreasingly popular in modern times, their role in today's celebrations, as an ambassador of Christmas past, can help us remember how our ancestors enjoyed the holiday.

And to those who truly do not like the fruitcake, its continuing intrusion is  a useful reminder to count the modern blessing that is an abundance of alternatives to the fruitcake.

More Christmas Trivia