Why Do We Eat Fruitcake At Christmas?

There's a joke that there's only one fruitcake in the world; we just keep giving the same one to everyone. Of course, there's more than one fruitcake in existence, but you can't deny it; many people dread receiving fruitcake. This Christmas staple does have its fans, but fruitcake's been the butt of so many jokes for years that the reason for its existence has been forgotten. So why is it that fruitcake is so synonymous with the holiday in the first place?

Before we go on, let's define our terms. What is a fruitcake? Some people think it's just a cake with fruit; a lot of cakes have fruit. But fruitcake is different. As the domestic goddess (and apparent fruitcake lover) herself, Martha Stewart, explained on her website, it's a sinfully rich dessert filled with dried fruits and nuts. The fruits have to be soaked in a sugar syrup before being dropped into the batter. Fruitcakes are typically very dense cakes, and with all of that fruit and sugar, you'd think it would spoil quickly. It doesn't, because most recipes require the cake to include alcohol, which kills bacteria that prevents spoilage, wrote CBC. Some families keep uneaten fruitcake as heirlooms, with one reportedly cherishing a 130-year-old fruitcake. (They have no plans to eat it, since it's as hard as a rock.)

It is easy to see why fruitcake is such a festive gift. Christmas celebrates abundance, and the richness of life, and a fruitcake certainly has that.

It's a super old recipe

Insider reports that fruitcake traces its lineage to a Roman delicacy called satura, a mix of nuts, pomegranate seeds, barley, raisins, and honey. Around the Middle Ages, people started putting fruit inside bread, possibly as a preservation technique, reported Bustle. There is also a tradition dating back to the 16th century where a coin or dried bean will be baked inside a cake — any cake will do at this point — and whoever finds it is considered the King or Queen of the celebration.

By the 18th century, fruitcake became popular for special occasions because so many of its ingredients were considered expensive and rare. Martha Stewart wrote that some European countries banned fruitcake because of how decadent it is. Fruitcake also became popular with royalty. Queen Victoria is said to have received a fruitcake for her birthday but waited a year before eating it, to showcase restraint. (Both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served fruitcakes at their weddings.)

The cake made its way across the Atlantic, where people, particularly in the Southern U.S., started adding different nuts to the mix. Fruitcake's stature as a special occasion delicacy remained, and people decided it was best to eat with family and friends. It was also a tradition in a British Christmas feast to serve a cake, either fruitcake or a plum cake, and this tradition stuck in American minds as well.

Ever wonder how far fruitcake travels if tossed?

Some American cities take fruitcake so seriously that they prepare for the Christmas season in August. These bakeries can produce up to millions of pounds of cake a year. Eating fruitcake during Christmas stems from tradition, but when did it become cool to hate it? Insider said the mass-production of the cake is to blame. Mail-order fruitcake became a popular gift in the early 20th century, which started people down the path of hating it. And since fruitcake lasts for years, some people simply forgot they had it and then refused to eat it, making them think fruitcake just isn't good enough to eat.

What do you do with fruitcake that you won't eat? Other than gifting it to another person, to saddle them with the burden of uneaten dried fruits and nuts baked in a batter? Why, you throw them, to see how far it goes. CBC said one town in Colorado hosts a fruitcake tossing contest. People build catapults and slingshots to see who can throw a fruitcake the furthest.

Fruitcake, though, need not be dense and intensely sweet. There's an Italian version called panettone that's a lot lighter than many other European recipes. Either way: Love it or hate it, fruitcake is sure to be around this Christmas. And with everything that's happened this year, trying a bite of a fruitcake is the least of your worries.