The story behind the Magical ‘Taste’ of Christmas | Sunday Observer

The story behind the Magical ‘Taste’ of Christmas

12 December, 2021

Another Christmas is around the corner! Even with the ongoing pandemic, Christmas season ushers joy and hope. With travel restrictions relaxed yet with strict Covid-19 health guidelines in place, the city of Colombo has transformed into a wonderland illuminated with lights. It is the most wonderful time of the year when families and friends will gather together surrounded by warmth and love.

Likewise, food traditions are also an important part of this holiday season. Even though the seasonal delicacies might vary from country to country, people await to indulge in the traditional food that grace the table. Depending on where you live these delicacies can be sweet, savoury or a little bit of everything. Among all food items something that holds a special place for everyone around the world during this time of the year is – Christmas cake.


Christmas cake mixing is a ritual that takes place on a grand scale at all leading hotels across the country while the home bakers too gather their ingredients to prepare this sumptuous cake. This age-old tradition dates back to 16th Century and was begun in England as plum porridge.

On Christmas Eve, people ate porridge using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Later on dried fruit, spices and honey were added to the porridge mixture which eventually turned it into Christmas pudding.

According to the history of the origin of Christmas cake, in the 16th century, oatmeal was removed from the original recipe while butter, wheat flour and eggs were added. These ingredients helped hold the mixture together, resulting in a boiled plum cake.

Richer families who owned ovens started making fruit cakes with marzipan, an almond sugar paste, for Easter and for Christmas, they made a similar cake using seasonal dried fruit and spices. It is said that the spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men when they visited Baby Jesus. This cake popularised as ‘Christmas cake’.

However the Twelfth Night celebrations began to experience a slow decline in its popularity while Christmas festivities in the 1830’s gradually gained more popularity. Thus this special cake was eaten on or around Christmas Day. With this shift the bakers of the Victorian era started to decorate the cakes with winter snow scenes. They became very popular at Christmas parties and by the 1870’s the modern Christmas cake had taken its shape, way different from its plum pudding roots.


At present Christmas cakes are made as variations on classic fruitcakes. Some bakers make it light, dark, moist, dry, heavy, spongy, leavened or unleavened and they come in different shapes, with frosting, glazing and dusting of confectioner’s sugar or plain.

As the sources reveal, the traditional Scottish Christmas cake, also known as the Whisky Dundee, is very popular. It is a light crumbly cake with currants, raisins, cherries and Scotch whisky. Other types of Christmas cakes include an apple crème cake and a mincemeat cake. The apple crème cake is made with apples, other fruit, raisins, eggs, cream cheese and whipping cream. The mincemeat cake is made with traditional mincemeat or vegetarian mincemeat, flour, eggs, etc. It can also be steamed as a Christmas pudding.

Chefs believe the trick with a great Christmas cake is in the timing. Christmas cakes should be made in advance. Many make them in November, keeping the cake upside down in an airtight container and some brandy, sherry or whisky is poured into holes in the cake every week until Christmas. This process is called ‘feeding’ the cake.

In Japan, Christmas cake is a frosted sponge cake with strawberries, chocolates or seasonal fruit and in the Philippines, Christmas cake is a yellow pound cake with nuts or the traditional British fruitcake. Both cakes are soaked in brandy or rum, a palm sugar syrup and water. Rosewater or orange flower water is usually added. During Victorian times, it was thought to be unlucky to cut the cake before dawn on Christmas Eve.


Modern day Christmas cake is made with more than fifteen varieties of dried fruits including dried grapes, fid, dates, cherries, papayas, nuts like cashew, almonds and pistachios and spices like dried ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, while sugar, all-purpose flour, ghee and eggs are added in accurate proportions and then let to soak in rum, wine or fruit juices. These soaked fruits are stored in air tight containers for up to seven to eight weeks where the flavours of the fruits, nuts and spices are merged to form a special flavour and aroma that fills the houses during the festive time.

How is the tradition behind Christmas cake mixing brought into the holiday season in Sri Lanka? “The Christmas cake as we know, it comes from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter. When families in the sixteenth century made their Christmas puddings for the big day, they would often use some of the mixture, with the addition of flour and eggs,to bake and eat for Eastertime.

These were obviously rather rich families. It was liked so much that the rich fruitcake was made for Christmas too. We also dropped it from the Easter menu for some reason. The addition of the marzipan and royal icing came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan.

Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well)complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born,” Hilton Colombo’s Executive Chef, Robert Mujagic said.

Mujagic said Christmas cake mixing takes place two months before Christmas and as a specialty Hilton Christmas cake is made with love. “If you eat our Christmas cake it will make you feel like you’ve been in heaven,” he said.

Symbol of unity

Culinary Expert, Mallika Joseph who bags 53 years of experience also added that the Christmas cake known as rich cake is a Roman design but evolved in English period. “All the people in 16th century used to fast before Christmas Eve. After fasting they feasted on a plum pudding in which the main ingredients used were sultana, raising and blackcurrants together with flour and eggs. Honey and spices were also introduced into this, Spices represent the wise men who visited baby Jesus. They also used brandy, sherry or whisky and they made the cake, packed it in a parcel and kept it upside down so that all juices were absorbed. They did it in November,”she said.

Joseph said the tradition of mixing and making Christmas cake is passed on from generation to generation. “The unique recipes were passed from mother to daughter. Each family had their own way of baking the Christmas cake. Every family member would gather at this event symbolising their unity, hard work and friendship. Then these cakes are shared with neighbours and friends to share their unique recipe,” she said.

Home baker, proprietor of Coco and Ginger, Maneshka Dolewatte also joined in to elaborate the history of Christmas cake mixing. “The first recorded tradition of mixing ingredients for Christmas cake originated in Britain in the 17th century. This was first coined the ‘Mixing it up Ceremony’. It was usually held on the first Sunday of November. Some say this ceremony evolved with the Harvest Season.

The fruits and nuts that go into the traditional Christmas cake were harvested during this season and were used to make this special cake. They saved some of this mix for the coming year in the hope that it will bring another fruitful and abundant year,” she said.

Sri Lankan style

“The traditional Christmas cake made in Sri Lanka uses a wide variety of ingredients ranging from sultana, raisins, currants, candied orange peel, ginger preserve, pumpkin preserve, chow chow, cherries, cashew, flavoured essences, mixed spices, alcohol, butter, sugar and semolina,” she added.

She said each baker or each household has a different method of making Christmas cake. “Some follow the traditional method of soaking fruits in alcohol and spices for weeks in advance. Some take a more modern approach by reducing the time fruits are soaked. Each recipe is special, they are mostly handed down from generation to generation, as is mine. I follow my mother’s traditional Christmas cake recipe. The fruits I use in my cake are not soaked in alcohol for long, maybe a few days but no more. The depth of flavour is still present after the cake is baked,” Dolewatte said.

Emphasizing the importance of Christmas cake making tradition Dolewatte said “Well, I can’t recall a single Christmas when Christmas cake was not made in my home. The aroma that spreads through the house when the cakes are being made, combined with the scent of the fresh Christmas tree and the newly polished floor spells Christmas for me. It’s also a time when the whole family comes together to cut the fruits, help line the cake tins, bake and then gather around the table to wrap each piece in that traditional green, red, silver and gold paper,” she said.

Magic and joy

“The season this year in particular is more home-centered. Almost all the orders that were placed with me were from customers who either wanted to gift cakes to their loved ones or for their households. I am blessed that my customers have placed their trust in me and return to me every year for their Christmas orders. Christmas cake is in itself a tradition.

Some undertake to give their relatives their share of cake each season, some provide them as Christmas breakfast to their neighbours on Christmas morning, some like to share them with the less fortunate or with the clergy, some like to share them with non-Christians the same way they share their Avurudhu goodies. I am happy to witness all these beautiful moments through my customers. It adds to the magic and joy of the season. Christmas cake is never enjoyed alone, it is made to share,” she said.

The tradition of Christmas cake mixing has now turned into a family affair which ushers warmth, love and unity. For some it may give quality time to bond with the family or in the hospitality industry where all employees come together to perform this ritual with much enthusiasm and fun. Christmas cake mixing and baking will surely usher feelings of hope and good cheer and set the festive mood for the upcoming celebration of Christ’s nativity.