What apples, plums and fruitcake have to do with Christmas

By | December 21, 2011

There are many foods traditionally connected with Christmas. These include breads and pastries, special fish and meat dishes, and even candy. Since last time we looked at holiday plants, this food focus will be on fruit and its Christmas connections.


Various Christmas treats include nuts and spices.


Besides the religious symbolism of new life coming from death with sprouts growing from hard, dead shells — many nuts are mentioned in the Bible. These include chestnuts, also called “plane trees” that grew in the garden of God (Ez 31:8). Acorns represent the oak, sometimes called “terebinth,” and found in Mamre at Hebron, where God appeared to Abraham (Gn 18:6-7). Also, Aaron’s staff flowered and grew almonds overnight as a sign of God’s approval (Nm 17:23).


Spices, with their origins in countries of the Middle East and Asia, are meant to remind us of the “Magi from the East.” One in particular, cinnamon, is listed among the ingredients of the anointing oil recipe given to Moses by God (Ex 30:23).

Spices, for the same reason of remembering the Magi, worked their way into many recipes of Christmas. This includes drinks such as cider and “wassail,” roughly translated as “to your health.” Traditional wassail, always served hot, consists of sweetened cider heated with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Wassail, while a part of Christmas celebrations now, dates back to a pagan drink that was consumed as part of European apple tree blessings in January.

A similar drink is called “lamb’s wool.” It uses ale or mead and baked apples (often mashed) and is served on Epiphany.


Apple connections to Christmas are obvious — they remind us of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Traditionally, the feast of Adam and Eve was Dec. 24.) Also, when Jesus is depicted in art with apples, it signals the salvation he won upon the tree of the cross.

A variety of fruits are used in many traditional Christmas foods, not the least of which is fruitcake.


A Christmas favorite, much maligned, is fruitcake. While preserved cakes of seeds and grain date to Roman times, fruitcakes containing actual fruit appear after the Crusades, around the 11th century. Today, some monasteries, such as Trappist communities, supplement their income with sales of fruitcakes, often preserved in alcohol — which extends shelf life by years.

Fruitcake has many names worldwide, each with a variation on the recipe. One well-known is German stollen which is filled with marzipan and candied fruit. The original stollen, dating to the 14th century, was made without butter or yeast — since these were not allowed during Advent in medieval times. A papal decree exempted stollen by the 16th century. Stollen’s shape is said to resemble a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes or the hump on a camel’s back.

Plum pudding

Another fruit-based holiday dessert is the plum pudding of England (a variation is called figgy pudding). The treat seems to have developed out of a way to preserve meat by hanging it in a bag filled with suet and fruit. This is also the basis for another holiday treat: mincemeat pie – which, today, doesn’t usually contain meat.

Plum and figgy puddings are boiled, first mixed with meat fat, sugars, spices and various fruits – though not fresh plums. Prunes (dried plums), raisins and currants are popular additions. A true plum pudding, which dates back to the 15th century, is supposed to contain 13 ingredients, one for each apostle plus one for Christ. Since the use of such rich ingredients was forbidden during Advent, plum pudding was made on the Sunday before Advent — called “Stir Up Sunday.”

Each family member took part in stirring the pudding and making a wish for the next year. Sometimes, coins or silver charms, representing wishes, were put into the pudding to be found when it was eaten. (Now these are usually placed under the pudding when it is served.) Put in a bag to dry, the pudding was hung in the kitchen near the fire or stove and left there during Advent. On Christmas, it was removed from the bag, adorned with holly, drenched in alcohol and set afire — adding to its traditional black color.

The 13 ingredients of a plum pudding are echoed in the French tradition of 13 Desserts of Christmas. These include apples, pears, winter melons, almonds, walnuts, raisins, oranges and quince cheese. (Quince is a yellow, Asian fruit related to apples and pears.)

Now that discussing all of these Christmas treats has you drooling, just be happy that the custom of fasting during Advent is no longer a part of the Western church customs — although fasting on Advent Fridays was still practiced into the 20th century.  (Eastern rite churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, still practice fasting as part of Advent.)

Sources: npr.org; wikipedia.org; whatscookingamerica.net; foodtimeline.org; dresdenstollen.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; historicalfoods.com; provenceweb.fr; smithsonian.com.

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