Mother’s fruitcake for Christmas and always

Family recipes are inherited like sepia photos of relatives who passed long ago, meant to savor the memories. None is more precious to me that a fruit cake. My last edition came out of the oven months before Christmas and has gently ripened from injections with high spirits (pictured).

But if someone calls you an ‘old fruitcake’, don’t consider it a compliment. They mean you are ‘as nutty as a fruitcake’, to coin another British expression. I plead that you don’t slur the venerable comfort food invented by an unsung hero in some baronial kitchen in the Middle Ages.

It is food with immense calorific value that nourishes the heart. If Captain Scott had not left his fruitcake behind at base camp in 1910, he might have brought his team safely home from the South Pole. The cake was rediscovered a few years ago and reburied in the ice with solemn ritual, so that others will find it when Antarctica thaws. It stands beside honey as one of the least perishable foods, owing to a high sugar and alcohol content and low moisture. NASA will surely provision it for the first manned flight to Mars.

But don’t confuse the British cake with faint-hearted European versions, called stollen and panettone. The trappist monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky sell a cake that’s a better imitation, but it still falls short of the original and what would qualify as a severe challenge for finalists in the Great British Baking Show.

I hear fruitcake virgins ask what’s so special in the recipe? I reply: hardly anything is left out. Flour from Canada, Sugar from the Barbados, Butter from Ireland, Oranges from Florida or Australia, Brandy from France, Eggs from New Hampshire, Raisons, Prunes, Apricots, and Walnuts from California, Cranberries from Wisconsin, Hazelnuts from Oregon or Turkey, Nutmeg and Allspice from Indonesia or Grenada, and Glace Cherries from Italy (or the Red Planet).

Not convinced? You think less is more? Then, you don’t get the point.

The cake is a model of a world as it should be at Christmas and always. Its ingredients come from everywhere—Red states and Blue, North and South, Western countries and Eastern—all blended to create a compatible whole and so innocent it might have been imagined in the Eden of Bakery. Oh, that human society was as united and proud to be called a fruitcake. Sadly, Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show was correct when he quipped, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Humanity rejects the gift.

Time Long Past

“Christmas comes round faster every time, Roger, and the years go by more quickly when you get to my age.” Grandma’s warning was also the annual refrain we heard from a lot of older folk as we grew up, and now as we climb into her years we nod agreement.

The end of a year is when time tends to assault our thoughts. It doesn’t, of course, really change outside of Dr. Who’s TARDIS, but the perception matters for every time traveler, and is more urgent when there are fewer miles ahead than in the rear-view mirror of your life.


As a perception problem, it’s more the territory of psychology than physiology or physics, and psychologists have had plenty to say about it. For one thing, they found that Eastern and Western cultures agree that time seems to speed up with age, although I would love to know if primitive (I prefer the “primal”) societies share the experience.

ClockOver a century ago, William James suggested time steps into a gallop because there are fewer memorable events or milestones ahead for marking the course of our lives—first day at school, graduation day, first kiss, first job, etc. By analogy, we lose sense of distance traveled on a road trip out of a city when the mile markers peter out in the countryside.

It may have been true in Victorian times that the years seemed to become more “hollow and collapse,” but I think the theory of collapsing time is bunkum now: our lives are rarely static at any age, as long as we are in sound physical and mental health. We dash through torrents of change (“firsts”) in family life, the workplace, and where technology, economics and politics impact our lives. We never reach a slow, meandering river before advanced age.

Psychologists have other theories for time. Some suggest it’s all about the choice of metaphor, that young people may represent time with ones that are more static (e.g., a calm ocean) than their elders (e.g., a speeding train). Others say that our false perception is simply a result of time getting progressively shorter as a fraction of our lives.

But a large study in Germany in 2005 found rather little evidence of any relationship to age, and those who said that time was going fastest admitted feeling under more pressure. Perhaps the mystery largely boils down to lifestyle. I have even heard children say that time is going too fast for them, and they have never been under more pressure to achieve goals and fill schedules. They have fewer empty hours than in my day, which I spent “wasting time” birding in the woods, and when they break from structured activities their brains often feverishly turn to games and social media on their phones and tablets. They keep the pressure on their fingertips.

I hear the poet who dreamt of dwelling in a small clay and wattle cabin to stretch time among the bean-rows and bee-hives.

Yeats poem

As I send this greeting to readers I hope they chill-out during the holiday season and at every other opportunity, so they can report a year hence that 2016 came round more slowly!

Next Post: We’re all Cousins in the Same Family

Christmas Birds

Northern cardinal at our feeder Christmas Eve

Our friends and neighbors turned up early for a hand-out on Christmas Eve in Williamsburg. They looked snug in their colored winter jackets and were eager for suet, seed, and nuts. I recorded them in my FeederWatch tally sheet—northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees and wrens, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers—adding notes about the weather (sunny and cold) and how long I had watched the feeder (time for two cups of coffee).

Project FeederWatch is a citizen scientist program of the Cornell Lab for Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. It recruits amateur birders from across and up and down the North American continent who record winter bird populations in their backyards.  Over time the data show which species have stable numbers or are increasing (most of those above) or becoming uncommon (too many). The five species recorded most in our area were: Carolina chickadee (98% of sites), dark-eyed junco (93), downy woodpecker (92), mourning dove (92), and northern cardinal (90). Sometimes we have an exciting “irruption.” Last year red-breasted nuthatches moved into our area ahead of cold fronts, and hungry snowy owls migrated to Virginia to avoid a scarcity of Arctic lemmings.

Last Sunday local birders were out in force braving the weather for the 114th Christmas Bird Count of the Audubon Society, which provides a snapshot of North American bird populations. The Williamsburg crowd fielded over a hundred volunteers and identified more than a hundred species that day, including some rarities for this time of year—western tanager, Baltimore oriole, and three humming birds (at heated bird feeders!). In that other bird-loving nation, the British Trust for Ornithology sponsors a survey of breeding birds for the same reason, and wisely in a warmer season of the year.

robin and letter box
Happy Christmas!

No British bird is more beloved or more closely linked with Christmas than the robin (not a close relative of the bigger American robin). Intolerant of its own kind, a robin will often strike up a friendly relationship with a gardener while waiting

for worms when a fork turns over a sod. For centuries they were known as redbreasts until 1855 when the British Postal Service introduced a skirted scarlet frock coat and black felt top hat for postmen. When the staff were nicknamed Robins, the same name stuck on redbreasts. If you ever wondered why so many British Christmas cards depict the robin with a red postbox now you know!

According to British folklore the robin got its redbreast from blood on the cross. But no birds feature in the Nativity story even though doves are common in Bethlehem and are biblical symbols of peace and love.

Turtle dove
Turtle dove. Morris’s British Birds 1891

Noah released a dove to test if the flood waters had receded. On its second flight it returned to the Ark carrying an olive branch, which signified the end of God’s wrath with mankind. Later, Levirate Law prescribed that people who were too poor to afford a lamb or kid could offer instead two turtle doves for the annual sacrifice at the Temple.

Mourning doves are common in Virginia gardens, where their forlorn cooing draws attention. But living in the Bible Belt affords them no special protection because these messengers of peace are game birds that will be blasted out of the sky after the hunting season reopens on December 31, up to a legal bag limit of fifteen a day.

Peace to all our gentle doves and to my readers at this Season.

And in the New Year may there be greater Peace between Men and with Nature.

Next Post: Shifting Baselines

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