Just a few short weeks ago, my good friend Judy Robbe was invited to give this talk at the Centro de Memória Anglogold Ashanti in the in the town of Nova Lima, Minas Gerais. I thought it was too interesting to share only with the guests who were present that evening, and Judy agreed to have her research posted here on the blog. The museum itself is housed in an historical house that is over 200 years old, and it brings the XVIII century gold mining boom and lifestyle of that time alive. Many customs carried to Brazil by English miners live on in Nova Lima, especially the Christmas cake, known locally as “Queca” (pronounced ke-ka).
By Judy Robbe
(Note: The British English word “pudding” means “dessert”. People should not confuse it with “Pudim” in Brazil or the American “pudding”.)
The English Christmas cake is a tradition that has evolved over time and to understand this we must go back over 3,000 years to a time when pagan peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, which fell on the 21st of December. The day before the Winter Solstice everyone observed a day of fasting or “Vigil” and their first meal after that was a porridge made of oats or barley.
At this time in northern Europe the Druids or Celtic priests decorated their temples with green branches to celebrate Yule and the ancient Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, and for twelve days celebrated Saturnalia. This was a time of feasting, orgies and an exchange of gifts. The usual social order was overturned, with masters serving slaves at tables and for twelve days prisoners sentenced to death were released to enjoy themselves at will before being executed. As part of these festivities, someone would be chosen by lot to be master of ceremonies or ‘king’ to preside over the celebrations. However ludicrous his commands (such as ‘sing naked‘), they had to be obeyed by the guests. When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 they brought their traditions with them.
During this period the early Christians quickly realized that if they wanted the populace to adopt their new religion, they needed to give them an incentive. Rather than abolishing pagan festivals, the Christian church often rebranded them as their own.
Although the origin of Christmas is a much-contested issue, Saturnalia would eventually become Christmas, and the 25th of December, previously honored as ‘the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, was celebrated instead as the Birthday of Christ.
There was still a Vigil on Christmas Eve and porridge eaten after the fast. However apart from honey and spices, dried fruit which began to arrive in Britain from Portugal and the eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century, was also added to the porridge to make it a special dish for the occasion.
The Romans, who ruled Britain for four centuries, enriched the porridge with pomegranate seeds, pine seeds and raisins. In time it turned into a pudding because it became so stiff with all the fruits and other ingredients that they would tie it in a cloth, dunk it into a large cauldron of boiling water and boil it for many hours. This eventually turned into plum pudding, as it is known today.
Christmas was preceded by a 40-day Advent fast. This would be broken on Christmas Day, when the season’s festivities would begin with a great feast. The celebrations continued in one form or another for a further twelve days, ending with a final feast on ‘Twelfth Night’ – the evening before 6th of January, also known as Epiphany, the day on which the Magi are believed to have visited Jesus.
During this festive period food played an important role. By the medieval era it was common for a celebration bread to be baked, often containing fruit and spices, to be served at the Epiphany or Twelfth Night Feast. This cake later became known as a Twelfth Night cake.
Part of the fun of the Twelfth Night Feast was the appointment of a Lord of Misrule. As in Roman times, he organized the games and entertainments at the final feast. To select the Lord of Misrule, a bean was baked inside a cake. Whoever received the slice containing the bean was ‘crowned’ the Lord of Misrule, otherwise known as the King of the Bean. Sometimes a pea was also included, and its discoverer would be declared Queen of the Pea. This practice was particularly popular during the early Tudor period.
The popularity of Twelfth Night traditions began to wane after the Reformation, when Epiphany as a religious festival was observed with decreasing enthusiasm. Instead Twelfth Night became a purely secular feast, although the cake endured. By the early nineteenth century the tokens inside the cake had evolved from a bean and pea to silver trinkets such as thimbles or charms.
Around 1830, with the decline in the celebration of Twelfth Night and Christmas being celebrated on December 24th and 25th, bakers found themselves without customers for their cakes on Twelfth Night and began decorating them with snow scenes and putting them on sale for Christmas. These fruit cakes were often decorated with a layer of marzipan and then a sugar icing.
Christmas cakes are made many different ways, but generally they are variations on classic fruitcake. They can be light, dark, moist, dry, heavy, spongy, leavened, unleavened, and more. They are made in many different shapes, with frosting, glazing, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or plain. The traditional Scottish Christmas cake, also known as the Whisky Dundee, is one of the most popular cakes. It is a light crumbly cake with currants, raisins, cherries and Scotch whisky.
The trick with a great Christmas cake is in the timing. All Christmas cakes are made in advance. Many people make them in October, keeping the cake upside down in an airtight container. A small amount of brandy, sherry or whisky is poured into holes in the cake every week until Christmas. This process is called ‘feeding’ the cake.
So let’s make a toast: Cheers! Happy Holidays!
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