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Why Do We Eat Fruit Cake at Christmas Time?

nut and fruit studded cake on white lace doily
Ah, the Christmas fruit cake. The dense, dark cake stuffed with fruit and nuts is often considered unpalatable and indigestible, the punchline of numerous Christmas jokes. But how did such a sweet dessert develop such a rotten reputation?

What is Fruit Cake?

Fruit cake is a traditional cake made with candied and dried fruit, nuts and spices. The fact that it is generally soaked in spirits like brandy, bourbon or rum contributes to its reputation for having a long shelf life.

While the fruitcake as we know it was probably first baked in the Middle Ages, there are references to similar cakes going back as far as Roman times.

At first, the cakes were mainly filled with nuts. When sugar became more widely available, candied preserved fruits were added. The addition of sugar made the dessert so “sinfully rich” that the church briefly banned fruitcake in the 1700s.

Fruit cakes vary by region, from the German stollen and Italian panettone to the more cake-like loaves of England and the United States. 

Why Do We Serve Fruit Cake for Christmas?

just baked fruit cake on cooling rack

In the 1700s and 1800s, the ingredients required to make fruit cake were prohibitively expensive. Therefore, fruit cake was considered an indulgence served only during special occasions like weddings and holidays. Couple that with the fact that, during the same time period, carolers often were given fruit cake in thanks for a song, and you have two likely reasons that fruit cakes eventually became associated with Christmas.

Fruitcakes came to America with the early colonists, but demand for the treat skyrocketed in 1913, when they became available by mail. A few U.S. companies built robust businesses filling orders and delivering Christmas fruitcake to friends and family far and wide.

The Dessert We Love to Hate

In the 1950s, fruit cake was considered a favorite Christmas gift. So how did a dessert that had been beloved for so long develop such a bum rep so quickly? Some people blame comedian Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show, for turning the tide with a series of seasonal jokes ridiculing the venerable dessert.

In Defense of the Christmas Fruit Cake

No doubt, there are some bad fruitcakes out there. You may have sampled one of them: A dense, gummy wad filled with neon green and red jellied bits that claim to have once been fruit.

That does not genuinely describe the moist, richness of a traditional Christmas cake. Take the time to find a professional bakery in your area offering fruit cake or search for a fruit cake recipe on your favorite cooking site.

Give fruitcake a try!

Christmas Central does not sell fruit cake, but take a look at our “delectable” food-related and candy themed Christmas ornaments, and gingerbread style decorations. We even have candy cane and Christmas novelty lights to add a little extra sweetness to your Christmas decor.