Fruitcake was not really loved to the moon and back when it was brought on the Apollo 11 space mission. Uneaten, it returned to Earth with astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong following their walk on the moon. Its trip to the moon may have been the only way fruitcake might be described as being out of this world--comedian Johnny Carson famously quipped, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around.”  In some places, versions of the cake are eaten throughout the year or for other special occasions. For the most part, fruitcake has become part of the holiday tradition, its place solidified in Christmas culture through imagery and stories like Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.

Like fruitcake, eggnog was once consumed year round but is now most commonly paired with Christmas holidays. Even foods eaten throughout the year take a special form at Christmas. Other than Thanksgiving, Christmas is typically the only time that a turkey is cooked whole and stuffed. Gingerbread is transformed into houses and men and peppermint candies are eaten as candy canes, shaped to mimic a bishop’s crozier. Cookies and cupcakes have a distinct holiday appearance; they’re presented as snowflakes, stars, trees, Santa Claus, reindeer and more--decorated with emerald green and red hues associated with the holiday.

From chestnuts roasting on an open fire to chicken roasting on an open fire with a phonograph. Christmas is one of the rare occasions a whole bird is roasted but it’s even more rare to be done the way it is in It’s a Wonderful Life. Photo by Insomnia Cured Here.

As much as these foods have been promoted for their connection to Christmas, they do not remotely resemble anything that would have been consumed on the day that is celebrated. When asked about foods served at the birth of Jesus, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Oxford and author of What did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times, Nathan MacDonald speculated that it would have been a fairly modest meal containing little to no meat. Instead, the majority of dinner would have been grains--either as a bread or mixed with water to create a thin porridge. The remainder of the meal’s nutrition would have come from pulses, some vegetables, and perhaps a little fruit.

Much of what is considered traditional surrounding Christmas and its cuisine may seem quite old but are actually fairly recent, dating back no more than a few centuries. In their book, The Invention of Tradition, historians Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, and others tackle the paradox of modern traditions. Components of Hobsbawm’s theory of invented tradition provide useful insight, explaining seemingly old traditions such as Christmas foods.

Hobsbawm defines the invention of tradition in the book’s introduction, writing:

"Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.”

He lists several characteristics of invented traditions that are relevant to Christmas fare and festivities. Invented traditions:

  • Are new, only emerging within the past two centuries, and typically at times of rapid transformation within a society to create a cohesion and foster identity.
  • Involve symbolic repetition and ancient materials that attempt to establish a continuance with an acceptable version of the past. 
  • Tend to be highly selective in nature--they rely on a distorted or factitious past and opt to preserve and present parts that Hobsbawm says are not an accurate representation. Instead of relying on memories preserved in popular memory, he states it uses a past that “has been selected, written, pictured, popularized and institutionalized by those whose function it is to do so.” These cherry picked bits are selected by those who are influential that seek to impose an ideology and function politically and socially. 

Christmas can be seen as the George W. Bush of the holidays--in its youth it was a hybrid of raucous booze-fuelled partying and Christianity, eventually embracing and emphasizing its ideological and conservative side in its later years. There’s no consensus amongst biblical scholars on the day, month, or even the year into which Jesus was born; the one thing most probably do agree on is that it was not on the day that his birth is celebrated. During the fourth century, the powers that were decided to designate December 25 as Christ’s birthday. This time coincided with several winter pagan festivals, including Saturnalia, the week-long festival that honored the Roman agricultural and harvest deity, Saturn. 

Saturnalia, and other festivities including Yule and the birthday of Sol Invictus, created a combined God of Sun-Son of God birthday. The newly established holiday of Christmas included elements from its pagan predecessor including the Yule log, greenery, gifts, and feasts as well as drunkenness, immoral acts, lawlessness, and other hedonistic shenanigans. Needless to say, such behavior was frowned upon by the church but the celebrations continued through the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, bishop Hugh Latimer declared, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.” Celebrations were banned by Puritans by the middle of the seventeenth century in both England and across the pond in New England. 

Following its time of being forbidden (and even illegal) a new Christmas emerged in the nineteenth century. As Hobsbawm points out, invented traditions are deliberate. They are not created because the old ways are no longer available; instead, they emerge during times of social revolution like those occurring in both the United States and the United Kingdom throughout that period. England was undergoing industrialization, class struggles, and a changing conceptualization of childhood, while the United States was experiencing the Civil War and other struggles. During that time of tumultuous social change, the holiday emerged as a way to promote unity, national identity, and a middle-class ideology.

Literary works, especially Charles Dickens’ 1843 short story, A Christmas Carol, were influential in redefining Christmas. Food is used symbolically throughout it--Ebenezer Scrooge’s gift of a turkey signifies generosity and Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas dinner emphasized domesticity and the importance of the family meal. The foods she served also helped shape the modern Christmas dinner. Instead of the foods consumed in early Christmas festivities-- rabbit, turtle, venison, and peacock--Dickens’ novella established a new tradition that included foods more commonly associated with Christmas, including turkey, geese, potatoes, and plum pudding. 

Other modern Christmas food traditions were also established during this time. Giving the illusion of a continuity, the holiday began selectively incorporating elements of the past. In an homage to the pagan past, the first known recipe for a bûche de Noël was published in 1898. The tradition of leaving milk and cookies for the religious and pagan amalgam, Santa Claus, appeared in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Its first American literary appearance was in Polly: A Before-Christmas Story, a short story written in the 1870s . During this same time, the usage of red and green colors began to be used to decorate sweets and their packages to give them a festive appearance.

Hobsbawm saw the integration of immigrants as a challenge in the United States and Europe in the late nineteenth century and believed invented traditions could instill a sense of nationalism and promote social cohesion. Over the past two centuries, sharing a Christmas dinner has been a patriotic and unifying experience in times of war throughout Europe and the United States:

Children enjoy Christmas dinner in a home for evacuees at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, 1941. Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Stone Richard, via Wikimedia Commons.
British troops eating their Christmas dinner in a shell hole, Beaumont Hamel, 25th December 1916. Photo by Brooks, Ernest (Lieutenant) (Photographer), via Wikimedia Commons.
American infantrymen celebrate Christmas in Baghdad, 2008. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the aim of cohesiveness, invented traditions can be exclusionary for those who do not partake in their festivities. This may have contributed to the emergence of another modern holiday food tradition. Originating in New York’s Lower East Side at beginning of the twentieth century, eating Chinese food on Christmas has become an annual ritual for American Jews. Both Jews and Chinese were non-Christian immigrant groups and Chinese cuisine offered an option that allowed Jews to feast on food while still adhering to religious dietary restrictions. Over a century later, this practice is still popular and may have become even more prevalent in recent years.

As Stephen Nissenbaum notes in The Battle for Christmas, there has never been “a tradition that was not invented and reinvented, and invented yet again.” The traditions and foods of Christmas Past do not resemble foods of Christmas Present and may not taste like those of Christmas Future. 

Want to invent a Christmas tradition? Try making a fruitcake that people will actually eat for Christmas next year. Here’s a recipe for a fruitcake fit for a (one day) king and queen--one of the layers in Prince William and Duchess Kate's royal wedding cake.

Rich Tamarind Fruit Cake
(Recipe by Fiona Cairns via ABC News)
Single cake makes 25-30 slices

    Ingredients for the Fruit Cake:
1 1/2 cups candied cherries
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups dark raisins, preferably Thompson
1 1/4 cups mixed candied citrus peel
2/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup dried currants
3 tablespoons molasses
3 tablespoons bitter orange marmalade
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
finely grated zest of 1 organic orange
finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon
1 heaped tablespoon apple pie spice
6 tablespoons brandy, plus 3 tablespoons to feed the cake
1 cup walnuts
1/3 cup blanched almonds
1 1/4 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 1/2 cups almond flour
5 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preparing the Fruit Cake Batter:
The day before, rinse the cherries, then dry them well with paper towels and cut each in half. Place the golden and dark raisins, mixed peel, ginger, currants, cherries, molasses, marmalade, tamarind paste, zests and spice into a large bowl. Pour in 6 tablespoons of brandy, stir well, cover with plastic wrap and let stand overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Wrap the outside of the pan with brown paper and tie with string, to protect the cake from scorching in the oven.

Spread the nuts on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes in the oven, shaking once. Cool slightly, chop coarsely and set aside.

Combining the Fruit Cake Ingredients:
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. In an electric mixer on high speed, beat the butter and sugar for at least 5 minutes until it turns pale and fluffy. Add the ground almonds, then very gradually the eggs, mixing well between each addition. Fold in the flour with a large metal spoon and then the soaked fruits (and any liquid) and nuts.

Spread the batter into the pan. Bake on an oven rack in the lower third of the oven for about 2 1/2-3 hours. If a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, it is ready. If it browns too much before it is fully cooked, make a circle of foil a bit larger than the cake, pierce a hole in the center and open it up, then place it over the pan.

Let cool in the pan. Pierce all over with a wooden toothpick and evenly sprinkle over the remaining 3 tablespoons brandy. Remove from the pan and discard the paper. Wrap in fresh parchment paper, then aluminum foil, and let stand for a week or up to three months. Unwrap and sprinkle with with 1 tablespoon more brandy every other week, if you like, for extra succulence and booziness!