Christmas Cake: The Tradition and History

Last updated:

The tradition of making a special cake for Christmas has its roots in medieval England, but the cake as we know it today took shape in the Victorian era. The predecessor of the modern Christmas cake is the Twelfth Night cake, which was baked for the feast of Twelfth Night, a festival marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and the coming of the Epiphany on January 6th.

Origin and Evolution of the Christmas Cake

In the 16th century, people would make a porridge called ‘frumenty‘ on Christmas Eve, which was made from milled wheat, milk, and spices.

Over time, this evolved into a plum pudding, and eventually into the rich, fruity Christmas cake we know today. The transition to a cake was facilitated by the availability of exotic ingredients like dried fruit and spices from countries overseas.

The Victorian Influence of Christmas Cake

During the Victorian era, the Twelfth Night cake was gradually replaced by the Christmas cake.

Queen Victoria is said to have waited until her children were grown up before allowing a Christmas cake to be made, as she believed it was not suitable for young children.

The Christmas cake, rich with fruits and spices, was seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. At this time, the cake began to take on its modern form, a rich, dark cake filled with dried fruits, nuts, and spices, and often covered with icing.

illustration of woman making christmas pudding surrounded by ingredients
‘Making the Empire Christmas pudding’, artwork by F C Harrison produced for the Empire Marketing Board (1926-1939)

The “Stir-up Sunday” Tradition

In England, the last Sunday before Advent, usually the last Sunday in November, is known as “Stir-up Sunday”. Read more about Stir-Up Sunday.

This is traditionally the day when families would gather to mix and steam Christmas pudding. The Christmas cake, however, was also made on this day, to give it plenty of time to mature before Christmas. The ‘stirring up’ of the cake mix is a tradition that involves each member of the family stirring the mix and making a wish.

Symbolism in Christmas Cakes

Certain practices related to the preparation of the Christmas cake carry symbolic meaning.

In the UK, the cake is traditionally made with 13 ingredients, symbolising Jesus and his 12 apostles.

The stirring of the cake mix is done from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men who visited Jesus.

In addition, a coin was traditionally hidden in the cake, and whoever found it was said to have good luck in the coming year.

Christmas Cake Variations Around the World 

The tradition of Christmas cakes varies around the world.

In Japan, the Christmas cake is typically a sponge cake decorated with whipped cream and strawberries.

In Italy, the Panettone, a sweet bread loaf originally from Milan, is popular.

In France, the Bûche de Noël, a cake shaped and decorated to look like a Yule log, is a Christmas staple.

In Germany, the Stollen, a fruit bread of nuts, spices, and dried or candied fruit, coated with powdered sugar, is a traditional Christmas treat.

The Christmas cake has a rich tapestry of history, tradition, and symbolism, with variations that reflect different cultural practices around the world. It remains a cherished part of Christmas celebrations, a sweet symbol of joy, togetherness, and the spirit of giving.

More Christmas traditions and customs