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Pastor Glenn McDonald: A Blast from the Past

So many Christmas traditions are delightful. 

There’s hot wassail, carolers in the snow, a contagious childlike awe, and candlelight services on December 24.  Then there’s fruitcake. 

An authentic Christmas fruitcake is a dense, unyielding concoction of flour, nuts, and gooey candied fruits, sometimes saturated with enough brandy to take your breath away.  

Fruitcake is quite possibly the most reviled culinary tradition in America.


The longevity of these creations only adds to their mystique.  Studies show that fruitcakes can endure for at least 25 years in more or less their original condition.  This has not made most people enthusiastic about their original condition.  Johnny Carson popularized the joke that there is actually only one fruitcake in North America.  Every year its current owner re-gifts it to someone else.     


So how in the world did this become a Christmas tradition?

Fruitcake fanaticism was borrowed from the British (where they were sometimes called "plum cakes"), whereas the British had been inspired centuries earlier by the ancient Romans.

Eating fruit was a luxury during barren winter months.  When the Romans discovered that generous portions of sugar could preserve fruits and nuts, it became trendy to swirl them into thick batter.  A good soaking of liquor guaranteed that mold would be held at bay.  

For centuries, fruitcake was a delicacy reserved only for the rich or for very special occasions.  It was a highlight at festive celebrations.  Both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served fruitcake at their wedding receptions.  

It's easy to see why it became a once-a-year treat at Christmas.  

Then came mass production.

In 1913, because of the widespread affordability of sugar and fruit, American factories began to churn out millions of mail-order fruitcakes.  Unfortunately, they didn’t taste like your favorite aunt’s special recipe.  Factory-made fruitcakes quickly achieved the reputation of being valuable chiefly as doorstops.  

The pervasiveness of sayings like "he's nuttier than a fruitcake" confirms that this once-special treat has become a national punchline. 

Since 1995, Manitou Springs, Colorado, has sponsored the Great Fruitcake Toss - an invitation to design ways to propel fruitcakes extreme distances.  The current record is 1,420 feet (just over a quarter mile), set by a group of Boeing engineers who constructed the "Omega 380," a pseudo-artillery piece powered by an exercise bike. 


The event’s official website provides this word of assurance:  “Lest you think that the fruitcake toss is a waste of valuable food, fret no longer.  The leftover cakes are trucked over to SunMountain Center and fed to their lovely pig Miss Jezebel and her delightful companions.” 

So why do we torture ourselves with fruitcakes every December?


They are like ambassadors from another time.  A bite of fruitcake is a taste of Christmas Past. 

And that can be a very good thing.

We live in one of the strangest seasons in human history.  Never before have so many people been so captivated by whatever is declared to be New and Improved. 

In the ancient world, "new" and "improved" were the foundations of a dead-end marketing strategy.  Who in the world wanted something new?  How could anyone possibly improve on what the community had valued for thousands of years?  People always looked back for guidance - back to the proven wisdom of those who had gone before.  

Then something changed.

In his book The Gifts of the Jews, historian Thomas Cahill argues that the notion that something "new" can be good and valuable was a gift bestowed on humanity by the people of Israel.  "See, I am doing a new thing," says the Lord through the prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk.  

That led to the new covenant.  And new birth for those who trust Christ.  And the promise of new heavens and a new earth.  

Now the bias toward the new has become extreme.  We're pretty sure that we can't live without that new phone.  And that new jacket.  And that new car. 

Modern people don't look back.  We look ahead.  That's where happiness lies.  

By yearning for the latest and the greatest, however, we have all too often overlooked the wisdom of our ancestors.  We have failed to sample the sights, sounds, and smells of the generations who first heard the story of Bethlehem, and who slowly brought into existence, over many centuries, the Christmas traditions that have become our own.


So this week, ask an older friend or family member if they can remember something that was particularly meaningful or memorable about Christmas. 


Are there children or grandchildren in your world?  Introduce them to the concept of “slow food” – coming alongside them to help prepare cookies, treats, or a special recipe.  Then tell the story of why this became a family favorite. 

Maybe this is the year to take a small step back in time.   


Fruitcake could be a good place to start. Take a bite of what used to be the most eagerly anticipated part of the Christmas feast, and thank God for those who have preceded us.

Could I make just one request, though?

You go first.  



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