The traditional Christmas cake is the merger of two dishes traditionally eaten around the Christmas period. Plum porridge or pottage and the Twelfth Night cake. The plum porridge was first cited in 1573 and was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve. Its was also the origins of the Christmas pudding.
During in the 16th Century
During the 16th Century the oatmeal in the porridge was replaced by butter, flour from wheat and eggs. This mix would still have been boiled and it was not until richer families had ovens in the home, that the mix was baked. Dried fruit was added and finished off with marzipan. Traditionally it would have been eaten at Easter. The Christmas cake evolved when dried fruit of the season and spices (the spices were symbolic, the spices bought by the Magi) were added at then eaten at Christmas. The cake was originally eaten not at Christmas but on the Twelfth Night, the Epiphany. Thus the Twelfth Night cake.
Victorians and Christmas Cake
With the slow decline in popularity of the Twelfth Night and the gradual increase in Christmas festivities in the 1830’s, the cake was eaten on or around Christmas Day. With this shift the bakers of the Victorian era started to decorate the cakes with winter snow scenes. They became very popular at Christmas parties and by the 1870’s the modern Christmas cake had developed. None recognisable from its plum pottage roots.
There are traditionally two types of Christmas cake, the classic fruit cake layered in marzipan and icing or the Scottish Dundee cake. With no marzipan or icing but instead made with whisky. It tends to be much lighter with less dried fruit and made with currants, cherries, raisins and candied peel.
Christmas Cake Traditions
There are a couple of traditions surrounding the Christmas cake. The first is the ‘Stir Up’ which traditionally takes place on the last Sunday before Advent (now more associated with the Christmas pudding). Traditionally the cake is made in November. The second is the ‘feeding of the cake’ when alcohol, usually brandy, sherry or whisky is added in small amounts through small holes in the cake (the cake during this time is kept in an airtight container) and the final tradition which is not so common now but was in Victorian times, it was thought to be unlucky to cut the cake before dawn on Christmas Eve.