Candlelight, Fruitcake and Tradition

December skies have a different look to them, or at least they do to me. December is the darkest month of the year for us here in Maryland, and I have observed the sky appears a darker blue and the stars somehow seem brighter. My observations could be predicated on the fact that I’m looking upwards a little more often in December than other months. There may be no truth in this observation; I may tell myself the evening sky is a unique display in December, but is it merely the will of my preference at play, or am I looking for a symbol? A sign that says, “it’s December.” There are decorative clues all around me that a holiday is near, but instinctively I want confirmation from the physical world, a symbol that hasn’t been hijacked by profiteers. And so, I look upward and this contrast of the deepest of blues and the brightest of whites comforts me, especially in unsettled times.

As the stars in the sky comfort me, so, too, have weary travelers been comforted for hundreds of years by a single light in a window. Whether it signifies a welcome sign to a traveler that may need a room for the night, a tradition of faith, an invitation to an Irish priest on Christmas Eve, or a loved one returning home, spotting a light in a window calms the heart. Lights are a recurring ritual in times of celebration: from the lights of a Jewish Menorah to Sweden’s St. Lucia Day where a candle crown is placed on a young girl’s head, to the November festival of lights in India where streets are lined with lanterns; lights are a prominent symbol in many religions. In the 16th century, Martin Luther was the first to add candles to a Christmas tree after seeing the stars shining through the evergreens on an evening walk.

Holiday meals, often held in the evening, also feature candles. Most likely because before electricity, it was the only means to see what you were eating. But, in the modern age, many still break out the candles for a special holiday meal. Red, white, green, blue, or bayberry, dinner by candlelight elevates the experience and makes the meal feel notable.

Celebratory foods adorn our tables this time of year, but what makes them special? How did certain foods find their way to our tables to bask in the glow of the holiday candles? When English and European immigrants flooded into the Americas, they brought with them recipes and customs of which many are still enjoyed today. Many food traditions, just like religions, have spread out across the globe organically over hundreds of years. While the list of holiday favorites is long, my column is short – so I’ll touch on a just few of the most well-known holiday foods.

Fruitcake has been associated with Christmas since forever, however, fruitcake was most likely a wedding cake first. Hundreds of years ago, the ingredients of a fruitcake were costly and hard to come by – butter, sugar, spices, dried and candied fruits baked into a cake would be a grand gesture to guests. As a celebratory cake, it’s easy to see why fruitcake would transition into a holiday treat. Perusing some of my own cookbooks, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, by Helen Bullock in 1938, had no less than seven different recipes for fruitcakes, dating from both before and after the American Revolution, confirming its apex as an early American treasured holiday food. Fruitcake has been the center of many a joke, but I contend, if made with craft and care, an old school traditional Christmas Fruitcake can be sublime.

Maybe it’s because I grew up eating delicious fruitcake, which was made from my great-grandmother’s fruitcake recipe. Who knows where she got it; the recipe may have been tucked in a pocket of a crew member of the Mayflower for all I know. To make her fruitcake, one must begin in November and, after at least six weeks of aging and a half a bottle of bourbon, it’s ready for the big show – the Christmas dessert table. If you’ve had fruitcake and didn’t like it, maybe you haven’t had the real deal. Very good fruitcake can’t be bought in a store, and that’s what makes it special.

Oranges can be found in many iconic holiday photos peeking out of children’s stockings. Widely available today, oranges don’t scream out “I’m special, I’m gift worthy!” making this food gift seem puzzling. Before oranges met modern distribution and refrigerated trucks, a Northern child would be thrilled with the sight of an orange peeking out of their stocking, as it might be the only citrus they would eat all year. Oranges are also in themselves a symbol of a golden gift. St. Nicholas, the quintessential symbol of the season himself, was said to have left three gold balls in each of the stockings of three dowry-poor farmers’ daughters. The stockings were hung to dry by the fireplace, and when St. Nicholas dropped gold down the chimney, it happened to land in the stockings. The Christmas stocking tradition may have started in Germany, but this practice did not stay within its borders for long.

Some traditions have spread with the help of political figures and authors. While ginger spice has been utilized for thousands of years to calm the stomach, it took a while to find its way into sweet desserts. According to The History Kitchen, in the middle ages Europeans baked hard ginger cookies “gilded with gold leaf and shaped like animals, kings and queens, and were a staple at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies in this fashion, after she had some made to resemble the dignitaries visiting her court.” The Queen also appointed a royal gingerbread baker, illustrating the prominence of gingerbread in this era. Gingerbread houses became popular in Germany in the 16th century but experienced a jump in popularity with the publication of Hansel and Gretel, by the Brothers Grimm, in 1812. Abraham Lincoln shared a gingerbread story during his campaign, and the Gingerbread Man was published in 1875 by St. Nicholas magazine (Coincidence? I think not.). Combine the imaginations of countless awestruck children at the holiday and the whimsy of gingerbread decorations and you’ve got a steadfast endearing tradition.

Evergreen Trees have long been a traditional symbol of the Christmas season and, while the beginnings of this tradition may be lost in obscurity, we do know that the practice of felling trees and decorating them in various ways seemed to dance around Europe in the 1500s. There is a documented Christmas Tree raised in the Strasbourg Cathedral in the Alsace Region of France, which very closely borders Germany, dated to the year 1539, according to author Bernd Brunner in his 2012 book, Inventing the Christmas Tree. And then came Martin Luther with his candles…to add a little something more to this growing tradition that seemed to spread across Europe. In a nobleman home, a tree could easily be placed in a grand room, but peasants saw to embrace the tradition as well with a little ingenuity. Bernd writes: “In the small common rooms of the lower classes, there was simply no space for such a tree, even if they had been able to afford it’s increasingly eccentric decorations. But the common people found a way to imitate the bourgeoise: in the southwest, as well as in Franconia, Thuringia, and Bohemia, it became common to hang a tree from the ceiling joists or rafters…trees were sometimes even hung upside down: pointing the root towards heaven was supposed to imbue the tree with divine powers.”

Christmas trees are often decorated with food. According to Bernd: “In the city of Bremen, Germany in the late 1500s, a tree was placed in the Town Hall and decorated with nuts, apples, pretzels and paper flowers… Sometimes these decorated trees were apparently carried in processions and the poor were allowed to plunder the fruits and baked goods before everyone began to dance.” Today, trees are often adorned with candy canes and popcorn strings.

I have noticed during the holidays in difficult times, people try to carry on their traditions. Immersing oneself in the rituals of the season is a means to bring familiarity to an unfamiliar time. We often cling to symbols rooted in faith and culture more tightly in dark times than in times of happiness and good faith.

Traditions are both stagnant and fluid and represent a contradiction within ourselves – of desiring both roots and wings. They do not exist as isolations – they are concrete evidence of human journeys across nations that combine culture, time, nature and the common bonds between them. They are an example of the evolutionary inevitability of change and the comfort of the unchangeable. But, change is the one constant we can count on.

The world has experienced more change in 2020 than what would be considered comfortable. To combat this uneasiness, we may find ourselves more committed than ever to carry on holiday traditions. However, I pause to consider what is worth clinging to and what may be creatively reimagined.

Our family will not gather as usual, because this year is anything but usual, and I’m thinking about hanging my Christmas tree upside down to symbolize an upside down year. I will keep the tradition of baking the family fruitcake, and enjoy watching a “Christmas Carol,” the one with George C. Scott. I love this movie and each year without fail it makes my eyes water. I guess you could say that’s a tradition.

In the original text of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens in 1843, writes this: “It is a fair, even handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.” I plan to keep Christmas in the present, create opportunities for laughter, kiss my husband under the mistletoe and perhaps look up at the December sky a little more often.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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