One of the most prominent features of Christmas is the food.
On a table lined with roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, gingerbread, and Christmas cookies, you can distinctly make out a fruitcake, overshadowed and alone in a corner.
While this famously criticized Christmas dessert has gained a lot of hate, you can’t help but wonder about its significant tie to the holidays.
This connection is linked by historic events and colonial influence. Stick around to learn more about why we have fruitcake at Christmas.
Fruitcake holds an equally fruitful history, dating back hundreds of years, reaching Roman times. During that period, a similar dessert was eaten called Satura.
It was made of pomegranate seeds, barley, nuts, and raisins glued together by honey. Some historians believe that the delicacy was created to preserve the harvested fruits.
This was a sweet and sour mixture of ingredients, which befitted the delicacy’s name, “satura” since it’s derived from satire.
Soldiers used to snack on this treat to build their energy for war.
During the 17th century, cake-making became a more popular trend. Bakers infused fruitcake ingredients into their cake mix, from cashews and almonds to candied fruit and nutmeg.
The cake was then soaked in fruit juices, brandy, rum, and wine to infuse more flavor. The drenching step increased the dessert’s lifespan.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, fruitcakes became a staple for celebrations and holidays. It was because the dessert’s ingredients became scarcer and pricier.
Europeans began baking the treat during holidays and notable events. Some English people baked plum cakes for weddings.
Interestingly, the monarchy, including Princess Diana and Kate Middleton, had fruitcakes on the wedding dessert menu.
In this case, plum wasn’t referring to the actual fruit but generally to dried fruits. Italians had their version as well, called panettone.
Fruitcake’s popularity at Christmastime likely came from European colonial influence. Since they ate a variety of fruitcakes during holidays and occasions, the U.S. adopted a similar tradition.
That said, when the fruitcake found its way onto U.S. soil, producing it was easier thanks to the cheap sugar supplied by the Caribbean.
Sugar is a prime ingredient in fruitcake because it’s used to candy and preserve the fruits.
The process involved cutting the fruit into small pieces, boiling it in a sugary syrup mixture, and rolling it into sugar to dry.
That way, people were able to save summer-harvested fruits in time for the Christmas holidays.
Over time, fruitcakes became more mass-produced, and mail-order versions were available. It was during that time that fruitcake garnered the notorious hate.
The mass production and mail-order service of fruitcake became its downfall, as many complained that the dense Christmas dessert became too dry.
Its wide criticism can also be attributed to pop culture references, including Johnny Carson’s joke that there’s only one fruitcake in the world that gets passed down from family to family.
Although both desserts are popular during Christmas, they differ in ingredients, baking methods, and taste.
In addition, Christmas pudding is more well-known in the UK than in the U.S. Plus, the dessert dates back to medieval England, making it older.
Ingredients-wise, Christmas pudding is made of dried fruits like figs, prunes, and raisins. To further moisten it, you can add either molasses or treacle.
The holiday dessert is held together by a mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, and suet. That latter ingredient is raw fat from a cow or lamb.
After mixing all these components, press a parchment paper over it and allow it to steam on the stove for two to three hours.
Meanwhile, fruitcake is traditionally baked in an oven. It can take up to an hour for the cake to bake.
Similar to fruitcakes, Christmas pudding has a long shelf life due to its infused alcohol content. Both desserts share the same dense, moist, and sticky texture.
Why do we have fruitcakes at Christmas? In short, it’s largely due to European colonial influence.
Fruitcake has a long history in European countries, particularly as an occasional treat for events like weddings.
After its arrival to American land, locals decided to follow a similar tradition and serve it during a notable holiday.
Despite having a lot of hate surrounding it, fruitcakes have stood the test of time, both in the literal and historical sense. Love it or hate it, the candied treat is around to stay.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.