Friday, December 16, 2016



   How many Christmas commercials do you see where the fruitcake gets passed as a recycled gift from family to family?  No one really likes it!  Finally it's given to the mailman, who gives it back to its original owners.  Have you ever wondered if there is anyone out there that truly enjoys fruitcakes!  But then again not all fruitcakes are created equal.  So here's a little history about the origins and how it became associated with the Christmas holiday.  The story of the recluse, a favorite dessert of some insane person, the CHRISTMAS FRUITCAKE!!
   It turns out that the earliest mention of fruitcake goes back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire (from a Star Wars episode of "The Empire Strikes Back").  Later it was the English, who actually started the Christmas tradition.  It was known back then as plum porridge, and it was eaten on Christmas Eve, as a transitional food after a day of fasting.  Later, dried fruits, honey and various spices were added to the oatmeal mixture, and it was called Christmas pudding.  By the 16th century, the oatmeal mixture was removed and some of the familiar ingredients of cake were added, such as eggs, butter and wheat flour.  This was boiled into a plum cake.  Wealthier families who had ovens, started making cakes using dried fruit and spices.  The discovery was also made at this time, that fruit could be preserved, when soaked in large concentrations of sugar.  It was now called "Christmas Cake", because the spices brought to mind the story of the Wise Men bringing exotic spices to the Christ child.  The English gave out pieces of fruitcake to the poor, who sang Christmas carols in the streets in the late 1700's.  By the end of the 18th century, there were actually laws saying that plum cakes (generic for dried fruit) could only be consumed at Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings, and funerals.


   Christmas cakes are made in a variety of ways, but are all some variation of the classic fruitcake.  Some are leavened, some unleavened, some are dark, and others light.  There are moist fruitcakes, and dry ones.  Some are plain, and others are glazed, frosted or sprinkled with sugar.  They also come in many different shapes. (Remember the brick shaped ones the schools used to sell?).
   The cakes usually have red and green candied fruit, pineapple, raisins, and other dried fruit, citron, and pecans or other nuts, in addition to the spices.  There is just enough batter to hold it all together.

Assorted candied fruits


   Some cakes also have a reference of adding some alcohol to the fruitcake.  Christmas cakes are made well before Christmas, usually in November, and the cake is stored upside down and put into an airtight container.  Then a small amount of whiskey, brandy, bourbon, rum, or sherry is poured over the cake.  This is called "feeding" the cake (more like getting it drunk).  These "pickled" or "aged " cakes last quite awhile.  It is said that the Crusaders carried them in their saddlebags, on their long journeys.
   Despairing of ever being able to eat fruitcake without breaking teeth, some have used it for a doorstop.  Comments have been made that "fruitcake congers up something rock hard and easier to cut with a welding torch than a knife".   There is also another that says "Egyptian fruitcake was considered an essential food for the afterlife, and there are those who maintain that this is the only thing they are good for"!

   In Europe, the fruitcake was associated with the nut harvests of the 1700's.  The nuts were collected, and then added to a fruitcake, which was saved until the next year.  At that time, it was eaten as a symbol of the hope for another plentiful harvest.
   The Victorians loved their fruitcakes, and there is a rumor that Queen Victoria once waited a year to eat her favorite birthday fruitcake, because she felt it demonstrated discipline.  Even today there is a custom in England, that if single wedding guests put a slice of dark fruit cake under their pillow, they will dream of their future marriage partner.
   There are people that say " there is something wrong, wrong, wrong, with any thing that requires no refrigeration, and that birds, mice, rats, ants, and cockroaches won't eat". 


   Even though bakeries report that fruitcakes continue to be a good selling item, some are not being eaten.  People are publicly throwing them away at the annual "Great Fruitcake Toss" in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and if don't have one to throw, you can rent one for 25 cents.
   The fact is, the popularity of the fruitcake has steadily declined in America.  So here is a closing quote, from the late Johnny Carson-"The worst gift is fruitcake.  There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other".



   As the Christmas season is fast approaching, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the history of the holidays.  It turns out that there are many myths, false tales, and little known facts about the Christmas holiday and I thought I would share some of these. 

  • The tradition of Santa being pulled by reindeer began in the 19th century when a group of people moved from  Norway to Alaska with a heard of reindeer, who were later used to pull sleds with Santa on them for an advertising campaign.
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer was invented in 1939 by a man working for a department store, previous to this there had only been 8 reindeer.
  • In North American tradition, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.  However, in Denmark folklore he lives on Greenland, and each country on the Scandinavian peninsula has an area in which he is told to reside.
  • The X in the abbreviation X-mas is derived from the Greek letter Chi which is the first letter of Christ's name in the Greek alphabet, rather than an attempt to remove the religious aspect of the holiday as some believe.

  • Although the birth of Jesus is celebrated on Christmas, it is cloudy as to whether he was actually born on December the 25th or not.  This date was chosen to give Christian meaning to existing pagan rituals.
  • In Roman times, December 25th  was celebrated as the rebirth of the sun and was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.
  • The Christmas tree comes from a pagan tradition involving the Winter solstice, and the word "Yule" also come from pagan sources.  As Northern Europe was one of the last areas to be Christianized, many of it's traditions had to be accepted into Christian traditions rather than obliterated.
  • Santa Claus was not always depicted as fat, jolly and bearded.  Throughout time his image has changed, from skinny and beardless to what he is today.  As a Christmas figure he is a mixture of Saint Nicholas and Christkindlein.

  • In recent years NORAD, the joint North American Aerospace Defense Command between the United State and Canada, has begun tracking Santa and his reindeer on their website via radar as he makes his rounds n Christmas.  This can be viewed at http://www.noradsanta.org/.
  • There was a time in the 17th century when Christmas was actually banned for being too flamboyant by several groups in England and America , such as the Puritans.
  • On December 24, 1914, on the trenches of the Western front of World War I, the troops of the British, French and German empires came to an unofficial, sporadic truce in places.  Carols were sung, gifts were exchanged and soccer matches were even started between the two sides.  This proves that even in the middle of one of the deadliest, dirtiest, and faceless wars that the world has ever seen, some of the most hellish circumstances imaginable, Christmas can still bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men.



   Although decorating Christmas trees can be traced back to ancient Romans who decorated trees with small pieces of metal during their winter festival, it was not until the 16th century that fir trees where brought indoors at Christmas.
   And in the 1840's, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree as the centrepiece of the royal family's holiday celebration.  In fact many of our festive customs and traditions date back to Victorian times.  The Victorians loved music, many had a piano or organ in the parlor at home and family sing a longs were customary throughout the year.  It is not surprising that they revived the old medieval carols and also composed new ones.



Christmas Cards
   We also have the Victorians to thank for the tradition of sending Christmas cards.  The very first Christmas card was printed in December 1843, at the request of Sir Henry Cole.  The artist J.C. Horsley was commissioned to produce the card which illustrated a wealthy family enjoying a Christmas feast as they all toast the festive season by drinking wine.
   Victorian Christmas cards were extremely elaborate, many gilded and embossed and some in pop up form.


Father Christmas

   In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer.  At Christmas time the Victorians also encouraged gift giving and charity to the poor.
   Exchanging gifts was a symbol of good luck, happiness and friendship.  The Victorians started planning their presents months ahead and most cherished gifts were handmade pieces of needlework or something useful.


Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe

   During the Roman Solstice Ceremony, holly was used , as it was believed red berries would ward off evil spirits.  Ivy was twined in the holly but Mistletoe was not allowed in churches because of its pagan origins.  The Victorians used mistletoe suspended from the ceiling and those who met under it could claim a kiss but only if there were berries on the plant.  Each time a kiss was exchanged a berry was taken off the plant until no more berries, no more kisses!


Christmas Feast in Victorian Times

   After attending church, Victorians had their Christmas dinner to look forward to.  This was one of the high points of their day and a large meal was served.  There would have been a fowl of some kind and maybe goose.  Other foods that may have been on the menu included: turkey, ham, oysters, a boar's head, Yorkshire pudding, cranberry pie, mince pie and plum pudding.
   The serving of the pudding was one of the great rituals of the Victorian Christmas dinner.  Made of suet, bread crumbs, raisins and spices, the making of the pudding would have been a family effort much enjoyed in the build up to Christmas.
   In the evening after presents had been exchanged and food enjoyed, the Victorians would have enjoyed singing, games and fireworks.



   Nutcrackers started out simple and useful ways of cracking open the hard shells of nuts.  In some regions of Germany, there were many mines and miners.  During the winter months, the miners carved dolls, nutcrackers, that actually resembled the powerful people in their poor lives.  They loved carving policemen, soldiers, and even kings, because they enjoyed seeing their superiors performing the lowly task of cracking open nuts.  When the mines were stripped, the miners kept carving their nutcrackers full time.  Changes came over the years and eventually the moving jaw and the name nut biter and then nutcracker came into existence.


   These unusual, wooden figures with their long beards, big mouths, harsh looks and large heads are considered, by legend, to represent strength and power.  According to German folklore, nutcrackers are protectrors of family and home and represent goodwill and good luck.


   Nutcrackers are also conversation pieces where all types of funny characters and unique pieces bring laughter and interesting nutcracker stories to the dinner table.  Guests would stand around the desserts, cracking pecans and hazelnuts and talk about the nutcrackers that symbolized the "Cycle of Life" for them.  The Germans felt that a seed drops into the ground and a tree grows providing nourishment for the woodcutters for hundreds of years.  The legend says that the people had feasts before harvesting the logs.  At the feasts, they ate fruit and nuts so they could take part in the cycle of life represented by their nutcrackers.

   During World War II, American soldiers returning home from the war often brought home these intriguing nutcrackers as keepsakes with their legendary ability to bare their teeth at the evil spirits and protect one's home and family.  That's how, in the early 1950's the nutcracker made it to the United States.  The "Nutcracker Suite" reached the United States about the same time.  The ballet, based on the play written by T.A. Hoffmann called " The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", sparked more interest in nutcrackers and increased the desire of people to purchase and collect nutcrackers.


   The Steinbach Family, orginally from Austria, has been producing nutcrackers for almost two centuries,starting in 1832.  They continue to be an outstanding producer of nutcrackers and their nutcrackers are great collectibles.  When the Steinbachs decided to make limited edition nutcrackers, the value of collecting became more appealing because the value of limited pieces would be greater.  Steinbach is recognized all over the world for their fine craftsmanship and unique nutcracker chartacters.


   There are many other producers of less expensive nutcrackers and they come in a great variety of designs.  You can get Mary and Joseph Nutcrackers, a nutcracker Santa from almost any country or a nutcracker for every branch of the service.  There are firemen, policemen, surfers, snowboarders and ball player nutcrackers, too.


   If you need a unique gift for a friend or family member with a hobby or special interest, you can probably find a nutcracker for them.  When company comes over this Christmas, you may want to add a bowl of nuts and a nutcracker to the table to stimulate the conversation and start a new tradition.