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Monday, December 23, 2013

Creches and Cakes

This is the nativity scene my oldest child sets up on my fireplace mantel every Christmas.
Nativity scene by St. Francis at Greccio,
painting by Giotto
St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. A live nativity scene staged in a cave, it had humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles and was an effort on his part to emphasize the worship of Christ rather than upon gift giving. Some say he created the manger scene as an alternative for pilgrims wanting to go to Bethlehem, which was then occupied by the Turks
        Nativity scenes, or crèches (the French word for manger), became so popular that within a hundred years almost every church in Italy had one, though eventually statues replaced the human and animal participants.
        During early colonial times in New England, the Puritans didn’t approve of celebrating Christmas and outlawed it in Boston from 1659 to 1681. (Presbyterians weren't keen on celebrating Christmas either, as it was considered an Anglican tradition.)
        During that time, an English tradition of baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold the Christ child was also banned by specific legislation. The outlaw pies were referred to as “Idolaterie in crust.” The ban was revoked by Governor Edmund Andros.
        Also in America, the tradition of decorative Christmas villages was rooted in the holiday traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The construction of a nativity scene, also called a putz, were made at the base of a tree. These scenes, sometimes inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, could include several hundred carved animals on their way to the ark.

        According to lore, the ancient Egyptians placed an early version of the fruitcake on the tombs of loved ones. But it was the Romans who made fruitcake popular by mixing pomegranate seeds, barley mash, and pine nuts and shaping it into a ring. Because of the cake’s shelf life, Roman soldiers would take them to the battlefields. During the Middle Ages, crusaders travelled with the same type of cakes, only they added preserved fruit, spices, and honey. 
Roman soldier's fruitcake.

      In the 16th century, Colonial Americans enhanced the fruitcake recipe with cupfuls of sugar that increased the density of the cake. Also included were fruits from the Mediterranean, which they candied and added to the mixture along with nuts.

Dried fruits and nuts.

        Every century saw additions to the fruitcake including alcohol in the Victorian era, until the cakes became weighty. By the early 18th century, fruitcakes became synonymous with decadence and were outlawed by the Puritans in Europe who proclaimed them “sinfully rich.” That law was eventually repealed, since fruitcake had become an important part of the tea hour.

Fruitcake Recipe 18th Century
Take four pounds of flour dried and sifted, seven pounds of currants washed and rubbed, six pounds of the best fresh butter, two pounds of Jordan almonds blanched, and beaten with orange flower water and sack till fine; then take four pounds of eggs, put half the whites away, three pounds of double-refined sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of cloves and cinnamon, three large nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little ginger, half a pint of sack, half a pint of right French brandy, sweet-meats to your liking, they must be orange, lemon, and citron; work your butter to a cream with your hands before any of your ingredients are in; then put in your sugar, and mix all well together; let your eggs be well beat and strained through a sieve, work in your almonds first, then put in your eggs, beat them together till they look white and thick; then put in your sack, brandy and spices, shake your flour in by degrees, and when your oven is ready, put in your currants and sweet-meats as you put it in your hoop: it will take four hours baking in a quick oven: you must keep it beating with your hand all the while you are mixing of it, and when your currants are well washed and cleaned, let them be kept before the fire, so that they may go warm into your cake. This quantity will bake best in two hoops.
This recipe was in “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse.

In Manitou Springs, Colorado, there is an annual Great Fruitcake Toss.  It is held the first Saturday in January.  If you don't have a fruitcake, you can "rent" one for a dollar.  Admission is one non-perishable food item.  Fruitcakes can be hurled, tossed, or launched by a non-fuel device. Pictured is a Crusader preparing to catapult a fruitcake. 
Whatever your special traditions, I want to extend to you our family's prayers that you will enjoy a very Merry Christmas and that Christ will be in the center of your celebrations. 
Susan F. Craft is the author of the SIBA award winning Revolutionary War romantic suspense, The Chamomile.  She is represented by Linda S. Glaz, Hartline Literary Agency.


  1. Wonderful post, Susan. There's so much about St. Francis to love.
    Finally . . . a good use for fruitcake!

  2. Thanks, Janet. The fruitcake toss is a hoot. I'll admit, though, my mother-in-law made the best fruitcakes ever and I liked them.

  3. There's only certain fruitcakes I like but that is such a waste. Lots of folks do like them and I'm sure the poor people would have eaten. Such an expensive waste. I can't even imagine how heavy with all of the different pounds. in this recipe. Must have been for banquets. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com


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