A Sunday for Reflection and a Cake for Christmas

Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them

Marcel Proust
November rain

This morning I watched the rain run down the window as the wind drove sheets of rain across waves of grass and beyond out over a turbulent grey sea. A metaphor for the poignant memories which turn my thoughts to the many Remembrance Sunday services when I stood quietly with my father and granny as a child, a girl and later a woman. Now I am the only one left to remember and stand in silence.

So thinking about my family, I begin to look forward – it is time to make the Christmas cake.

In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was one of the most important religious festivals and holidays. It was a period of indulgence with the consumption of great quantities of brawn, roast beef, plum-pottage, minced pies and Christmas ale accompanied by dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays. Christmas still retained the medieval elements of “misrule” and in the eyes of the Puritans of the Cromwellian Commonwealth it was an excuse for drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess.

The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament sums up the mind-set of puritan opposition to Christmas.
The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament sums up the mind-set of puritan opposition to Christmas.

Among the stricter English Protestants the objections to the traditional Christmas celebrations were not based solely on questions of morality. The Christmas festival was popular among the Catholic recusant community and, therefore, in Puritan eyes it had all the trappings of popery. (After the Reformation those who refuse to attend Anglican services, whether Catholics, Quakers or other Protestant non-conformists were known as recusants)

In the the 17th century the original plum pottage¹ (a boiled beef with red wine, beer, spices, apples and dried fruit “soup”) had not yet evolved into the Christmas pudding. However, when the Christmas pottage was made flour and eggs were added any left-over mixture to make a cake to be eaten at Easter. There was also cake to celebrate Twelfth Night which contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. By the time Cromwell had finished the mince pies and mummers had been vanquished, but the Christmas cake, something of an amalgam of the Christmas pudding and the Twelfth Night cake, managed to survive. With the re-invention of Christmas by the Victorians, the Christmas cake became an iced and decorated extravaganza.

Ladies of fashion" gather in a confectioner's shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London
Ladies of fashion” gather in a confectioner’s shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London

Now you can choose – a traditional Christmas cake, a panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël or a Dundee cake. Even if you choose a traditional fruit cake, you can adjust the mix to suit your taste – dense and moist or lighter and drier, plain or iced, with or without almonds.

I don’t make a cake every year and it remains unadorned, except perhaps for some glazed nuts. The cake is spicy, moist and rich, and although the composition of the fruit mixture may vary from year to year, the basic recipe changes very little. It is also well fed, so it needs time to mature. I’ve added my recipe for a Cake for Christmas to the Croft Kitchen recipes, so you can compare it with your family recipe.


1Plum-pottage was also probaly the origin of mince pies (minced pies). The style of Christmas pudding we now consider traditional did not arrive until the 19th century.

10 thoughts on “A Sunday for Reflection and a Cake for Christmas

  1. Thank you – interesting reading. We’ve moved so far from the origins of the festive rituals now!

    • Rituals and festivals have always changed over time and not necessarily always for the better. However, we are fortunate to be able to choose how we when we celebrate.

  2. Timely reminder to make my Christmas cake. I shall have a look at your recipe now.

    • Oh there is still plenty of time, I’ve beem known to make a Christmas cake the week before the event.

  3. I enjoyed the history behind the traditional Christmas cake. I’ve lived in Africa and Australia, and time (and place) may change people, but the desire to bake a Christmas cake never dies…how many years we have spent arriving at a family gathering in Sydney on a hot humid day, to be told that the Christmas cake is nearly ready…and we sit down to a nice hot cup of tea…

    • Well there is nothing to beat a nice piece of cake and a cup of tea. The only time I’ve not be offered Christmas cake was in Istanbul, but there was plenty of plenty and wonderful alternatives!

  4. Liz Morton

    Ooh, love that rain. We have rain & wind in Cheshire but I would love to experience yours. I have made mincemeat,Christmas cake & yesterday Christmas pudding. I will look at your cake recipe & the other recipes & compare. very best wishes

    • Hello Liz, you have been busy. I’m still debating over the mincemeat – I love mince pies.
      You’d love the weather here today, it’s stormy enough to be interesting, I just hope it doesn’t get too serious later.

  5. I was wondering about your weather earlier today. We have wind and rain but on a rather humdrum scale. I need to stop dithering about a gluten free recipe for Christmas cake ( I know, I know, necessity rather than choice) and get on with making one!

    • We’re fine thank you, storm force winds are a routine part opf the winter. Most of us are well prepared for ferry disruptions, road closures and power cuts.
      As for gluten free Christmas cakes, well OK if it is necessary. I’d be tempted to experiment with some of the more obscure flours. We often use buckwheat (because we like it) in bread and pancakes, but I’m not sure how it would work, perhaps with some rice flour? I do sympathise as I love my grains and bread.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.