CHRISTMAS food traditions are curious things. Where do they come from? What do they mean? Yet they play on our nostalgia and sense of special occasion enticing us into participation all the same.
Such traditions sit at the intersection between religious observance, pagan ritual, superstition and familial connection; identifiers of clan, townland, region or as uniquely Irish in character and meaning. Christmastime amplifies this as the time of year most associated with coming together, feasting on fine food and drink, sharing stories and being with our clan.
Food thought of as traditional and Irish has remained consistent with the passing of time, but the stories attached to those foods has changed, disappeared or meanings forgotten. A resurgent interest in Irish culinary history, foodways, food and folklore are uncovering a treasure trove of lost and forgotten food-lore – especially around Christmas cakes and sweet treats.
Christmas is always a time when there is great activity in the kitchen baking and making desserts for the festive season. Having spent the Covid Year honing those skills, we will no doubt be in the Christmas spirit for baking our way through the most wonderful time of the year!
I began to wonder what food-lore there is associated with cakes in Ireland that has been forgotten, and what were our grand and great-grand parents making that we aren’t making now?
To find out, I took a look into the Main Manuscripts Collection, part of the National Folklore Collection. The Collection is a body of material collected between 1935-1970 by a small group of dedicated folklorists who recorded the everyday lives of ordinary people across several topics including Religious Feasts, Christmas in Ireland and Christmas Customs. From here, I learned about sweet cakes, bloc na nollaig and throwing barmbrack at the door!
It was usual practice to make not one, but three, Christmas Cakes, rich with fruit, spices and alcohol.
The cakes would be eaten during the twelve days of Christmas with the first cake cut at midnight on Christmas Eve to mark the ending of the Christmas fast and drunk with either Whiskey punch for the adults, a fruit wine punch for the children or cups of tea. The second cake would be cut on New Years Eve, and the third cake at Epiphany, or Little Christmas.
There are two rather different takes on why a freshly baked Barmbrack was thrown at the door on New Years’ Eve. The first dates back to Cromwelian days when the cake was thrown at the door accompanied by the curse: “bás na Sasanac!” or “bring on the protestant!”
Margaret Hickey’s version in her book, Ireland’s Green Larder, has the Barmbrack presented to the head of the household who takes three bites out of the cake and throws it “against the door in the name of the Holy Trinity, wishing that starvation be banished from Ireland.”
Bloc na Nollaig, Yule Log or Bûche de Noël is better known these days as a chocolate and cream swiss roll, covered in a rich chocolate icing and festively decorated to resemble a wooden log. But did you know this cake is a replacement for the real Bloc na Nollaig – an actual wooden log, brought to a home as a gift. Some accounts say that the Yule Log was so big, it would stick out into the room and gradually pushed into the fire as it burned down, lasting for days. Sometimes it would be placed on the fire Christmas Day just before sitting down for the feast. Others said that the log would be kept burning into the new year as a sign of good fortune, while another said to keep any remaining lump of charcoal and place it under the bed for good luck!
There is no doubt Seed Cake has fallen out of fashion, giving way to our modern taste for really sweet things, such as trifle and pavlova, than cakes enhanced with spices to enliven tastebuds. Seed Cake is a type of tea cake flavoured with caraway seed and buttermilk. It is an old recipe, dating back to the 16 th Century with many different variations, and gained popularity in Ireland the UK during the Victorian period. Caraway is a flavour coming back into fashion, so maybe this is a time to resurrect it! Swap flour for ground almonds to make it gluten free, add apple and cinnamon for extra sweetness.
Our traditional habit of getting in or gifting a tin of fancy biscuits could be traced back to Christmas Eve. After cutting into the first Christmas Cake on Christmas Eve, homemade or expensive bought biscuits flavoured with festive spices such as mace, nutmeg or cinnamon would be shared around, taken with a drop of whiskey for the men, and a glass or porter or wine for the ladies.
A story that came up in several similar forms in the Main Manuscripts Collection involved one, sometimes two, young girls who were told that, on the stroke of midnight Christmas Eve, a pitcher of water would turn into wine. The wine must not be drunk, instead the pitcher of wine must be thrown out of the front door of the house in the morning. If disobeyed, or if the young girls tried to stay awake to watch the miracle happening, it seemed certain they would mysteriously disappear never to be seen again.
It was tradition before bedtime to place bread, nice cakes and wine upon the kitchen table and light the Christ Candle, carved out of a turnip and left on the kitchen windowsill to welcome in fairies on Christmas night. Others would leave front and back doors unlocked to welcome in the spirit of Mary and Joseph while another account said the feast was for the dead to come back and enjoy themselves. Whatever you believe in, its easy to see the parallels between these old Irish customs, and the modern custom of leaving out cookies and milk for Santa and a carrot for his reindeer!
Many people still observe Christmas Eve as a fasting day, breaking their fast around 6pm for a simple, traditional supper of salted fish (usually Ling in Cork), potatoes and a white sauce. After, people would go about finishing preparations for the feast day, visiting neighbours, the elderly and widowed with gifts (Yule Log, cakes or tea), before going to mass. Returning home after midnight, the feast would begin with a slice of Christmas Cake, biscuits, cups of tea and slices of ham, hung and gently smoking for a couple of weeks inside the chimney of the large open fire places in the days when fire places were used to heat the home and for cooking. Christmas Eve thus became known as The Night of Two Suppers.