The History of Christmas Cake

Whilst writing this, I’m listening to Bing Crosby Christmas songs, with the Christmas lights switched on. An unusual choice for a 26-year-old, you may think, but for me this has a personal connection. A running joke in my family was that my beloved grandad looked like the Crooner, so I always like to listen to him as it feels grandad is still here, despite him no longer being with us. Just in case you haven’t get it yet, I love Christmas, but I don’t like the tradition Christmas cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies. Whilst I don’t, everyone else in my family does. Our kitchen has smelt very Christmassy for the last month whilst my mum has been busy baking Christmas cakes for our family and friends. I’m sure lots of your houses will be filled with the treat too, whether homemade or store brought. It got me wondering of how Christmas cake has become a tradition at Christmas time.

Samuel Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Up until the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was celebrated between 6th December and 6th January as the cold weather meant little work could be done in the fields. Presents were given, but usually to mark the beginning, St Nicholas’ Day and the end, Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. Boxing Day was usually the day presents were given to servants.[1] As the present giving was spread out, food was one of the largest part of the celebrations. Food that could be made ahead of time and served cold were popular as they could keep for season.[2] Food with fruit in was one of the flavours most preferred, as these usually kept longer.

Originally the flavouring we now associate with Christmas cake came in the form of a plum porridge, which was made to line people’s stomachs at Christmas aver a time of religious fasting over Advent.[3] This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding.[4] From the sixteenth century, the oats became replaced with flour and eggs, which meant it took on the consistency of a cake. Spices were also becoming more available at this time, which were meant to represent gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men.[5] Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.[6]

Whilst this does sound more like the Christmas cake we recognise today, it was still not quite the same. It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[7] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake the centrepiece of the feast. It was shared by everyone, including servants. Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[8] This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.[9]

George Cruickshank, Frontispiece to a set of Twelfth-night characters, showing a Cossack and Napoleon in front of a Twelfth Night Cake (c. 1813), © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Twelfth Night itself was mostly a bygone thing. Most people had moved to live in cities, with little time to celebrate Christmas for a whole month, has had gone before. Instead, Twelfth Night became Christmas Day, as that was the day most people had off work.[10] From this, the Twelfth Night cake became known as the Christmas cake. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria officially banned Twelfth Night as she feared any celebrations that did occur would become too out of control and potentially riotous.[11] Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.


[1] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[2] Ibid

[3] Great British Bake Off, History of the Christmas Cake, https://thegreatbritishbakeoff.co.uk/history-christmas-cake/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[11] Jane Austen Centre, ‘A History of Twelfth Night Cake’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/desserts/twelfth-night-cake

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2 thoughts on “The History of Christmas Cake

  1. Thanks, your post cleared up a number of confusions I’ve had about Christmas cakes, or as we call them fruitcakes. Mine is made in November and then get cured in rum-soaked muslin for most of a month before distribution.

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    1. I’m glad it helped. My mum soaks ours in brandy by leaving them shut up in a plastic tub. The one thing I didn’t get chance to mention is how they became popular in America and across the British Empire was that it was easy for families to send them there as it survived the journey and was still edible.

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