Author: Michelle Crawford, St. Jude's, Niceville
The most polarizing thing about this time of year isn’t necessarily what Starbucks prints on their cups, or when is too early to play Christmas music in the stores. No, I’d argue it’s the humble fruitcake.
People in the anti-fruitcake camp think of it as a barely edible lump filled with unidentifiable neon globs, weighing and tasting about the same as a brick. Those who like fruitcake, however, have no doubt had the pleasure of eating a truly good fruitcake at some point in their lives. This is a quality product, rich with dried fruit and nuts and generously flavored with alcohol. These good versions are why fruitcakes are still popular instead of relegated to a joke of Christmas past.
Making a fruitcake from scratch is a lesson in patience. First, the dried fruit is steeped in brown sugar, brandy, butter, and the fresh-squeezed juice of oranges and lemons until it is plump and juicy. After a good long soak, the batter is mixed. At this point it becomes very heavy and stiff because there are almost more fruit and nuts than cake! Because it is so dense, the cake bakes for a long time – two hours for my recipe. At last, the cake is done! Time to eat? Oh, no! Instead, it’s time to poke some holes in the cake and drizzle over a couple of tablespoons of brandy, wrap it tightly, and leave it in a tin to mature. The brandy soaks into the cake and preserves it, simultaneously deepening and enriching the flavors. Every two weeks before Christmas, the cake is unwrapped and baptized with more brandy before putting it away again. Finally, finally, on Christmas day, the cake is ready to be eaten. After its long maturation, the flavor is rich and intense, a cake to be savored.
It’s no coincidence that it takes the entire season of Advent to make a good fruitcake. In fact, the Christmas pudding, a close relative to the fruitcake, is traditionally started on the last Sunday before Advent begins. This is called “Stir Up Sunday” because of the collect in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which begins: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” The story goes that hearing this collect reminded housewives to begin their Christmas puddings. Some fruitcake recipes require aging the cake for at least ten weeks after baking!
These days it’s hard to find an Episcopalian who has not bowed to culture and put up their Christmas decorations during Advent (guilty!), but we still try to make concessions to the proper season. Our Advent wreaths are on our tables with candles lit on Sundays. Perhaps the wise men are slowly making their way across the room to the nativity scene, and baby Jesus is not yet in the manger.
So it is with the fruitcake. It’s exciting to mix the ingredients and bake the cake, breathing in the delicious aromas of cinnamon and brandy, just like decorating our houses is a joyous event. But once the cake is baked, and once the tree and lights are up, then we must wait.
Jumping right in to celebrating Christmas sounds like a good idea to most, but like the fruitcake, doing so would be a mistake. Sure, the cake would taste good if eaten immediately, but there is so much richness to be gained by allowing it to mature. Putting in the time to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ renders the moment that much sweeter and more meaningful. Patience is rewarded with a deeper understanding, so that when Christmas is finally here, we are ready to truly savor the celebration.
Pictured above: Homemade Fruitcake, by Michelle Crawford