The Christmas cake, as we know it today, comes from two customs which became joined around 1870 in Victorian England.
Originally there was a porridge, the origins of which go back to the beginnings of Christianity. Followed by a cake made with the finest milled wheat flour, this was baked only in the Great Houses, as not many people had ovens back in the 14th century. Originally people used to eat a form of porridge on Christmas Eve. It was a dish to line the stomach after a day's fasting, which was observed for Christmas Eve, or the 'Vigil' as it was called.
Gradually the custom began, putting spices, dried fruits and honey into the porridge to make it a more special dish for Christmas. Much later it was turned into a pudding; because it became so stiff with all the fruits, it was necessary to tie it in a cloth and dunk it into a large cauldron of boiling water to boil for many hours. This became the modern day Christmas pudding.
Later, around the 16th century, it became popular to add butter, replace the oatmeal with wheat flour and add eggs to hold it together better. This became boiled plum cake. So boiled plum pudding and boiled fruitcake existed side by side depending on which ingredients the housewife used.
In the castles and fine homes, people would make a special cake for Easter, which was a rich fruitcake recipe with a topping of what we now call marzipan or almond paste. A similar cake was baked for the Christmas festivities, but whereas the Easter one was a plain cake with almonds, the Christmas cake had dried seasonal fruits and spices. These represented the exotic spices of the East and the gifts of the Wise Men. Such things were first brought to Europe and Britain particularly, by the Crusaders coming back from the wars in the Holy Land in the 12th century.
This was not classed as a Christmas cake, but a Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth night is on the 5th January and has been for centuries the traditional last day of the Christmas season. It was a time of great feasting and the cake was an essential part of the festivities. This was slightly different in other countries and also at different social levels. In the Great Houses a dried Bean and Pea were baked into the cake, one in the left hand side and one in the right. The cake was decorated with sugar, similar to our icing, but not so dense. As the visitors arrived, they were given a piece of the cake, ladies from the left and gentlemen from the right side. Whoever found the bean became King of the Revels for the night and everyone had to do as he said. The lady was his Queen for the evening.
In smaller homes the cake was a simple fruitcake, with a bean baked in it, which was given to guests during the twelve days of Christmas. Whoever got the bean was supposed to be a kind of guardian angel for that family for the year, so it was an important task and usually it was arranged that a senior member of the family would get the bean. This tradition was still observed until recently in Poland.
In Britain the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the priest and his entourage who would visit on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish. This custom died out after the Reformation in the late 16th century. In Mallorca, the main island of the Spanish Balearics Islands, they have a similar custom which takes place at Easter.
Twelfth Night is the Church festival of Epiphany, the traditional day when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi or Three Kings at Bethlehem. It used to be the time when people exchanged their Christmas gifts. The feast was marked, as were all the old feasts, by some kind of religious observance, visiting the church, a service of some kind and then a folk observance which was tightly wrapped up as part of the Church activities.
Twelve Day (the day following Twelfth Night) entailed the blessing of the home and in some countries it is still observed. But after the Reformation, these customs of the Church were banned by the Puritans and fell into disuse. Without its religious overtones, Twelfth Night became a time of mischief and over indulgence. By 1870 Britains Queen Victoria announced that she felt it was inappropriate to hold such an unchristian festival and Twelfth Night was banned as a feast day.
The confectioners who made the cakes were left with boxes full of figurines and models and also had lost revenue by the banning of the feast. So they began to bake a fruitcake and decorate it with snowy scenes, these were sold not for the 5th January, but for Christmas parties. It was thus that we developed the Christmas cake. Few Christmas celebrations today are without some kind of cake and there can be no better food for sharing, steeped as it is in history and tradition.