THURSDAY: Christmas Cakes


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EVERY OCTOBER my mother-in-law pulled out the Christmas cake recipe. It was handed down to her by her mother-in-law, Theresa. Every year we followed it item by item — a pound of raisins, prunes and currents. Green maraschino cherries and red maraschino cherries. A pound of sugar, flour, butter, and a dozen eggs. Measure the ingredients carefully because one tiny mistake would ruin the Christmas cakes. And don’t forget two teaspoons of vanilla essence. Not the fake kind. Only the real vanilla essence. The first week of October we ground the fruit and soaked the mush with a bottle of wine and a bottle of rum. The mixture sat in a jar on her kitchen counter until the end of November. Then we folded it into the sugar, flour, egg, and baking powder mixture. This was done under the guidance of Theresa’s spirit who hovered over us, making sure we followed the instructions. I’m not sure she was there but my mother-in-law always said she could feel her presence and occasionally she answered Theresa with, “yes we did.” And “no, we didn’t forget.” Once the cakes finished baking and cooled my mother-in-law poked holes in them, poured rum into the holes and sealed them in plastic wrap. The week before Christmas we iced the cakes with marzipan and royal icing. 

During the week of cake baking, my mother-in-law always invited my younger son, who couldn’t keep a secret, over for a visit — just the two of them. While I walked him across the park to her house, I would say, “do not tell Nana what we are giving her and Poppa for Christmas.” But my mother-in-law persuaded him with cookies and milk, and he spilled the beans. It worked every time. It was all part of the excitement and fun of Christmas. 

My mother-in-law died in 1996. I didn’t make Christmas cakes that year and placed one less plate at dinner. It changed again when my mother died in 1997 and there was another empty spot at the table. The first Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve without my mother, and my mother-in-law turned into a Christmas comedy or maybe more of a melodrama. My father-in-law and stepfather disliked each other. It all stemmed from a bunch of retired men having morning coffee at the food court in the mall. An acquaintance of theirs, told my father-in-law that my stepfather was a rich man but too cheap to spend a dime. The same acquaintance told my stepfather that my father-in-law was wealthy but too cheap to buy his friends a coffee. It started the, he thinks he’s better than me battle that lasted many years. When their spouses were alive, they tolerated each other. Without their wives, there was no stopping them. That Christmas it was war and began with my stepfather criticizing the shirt I gave him. He didn’t think the material good enough quality, not for him. The colour might run in the wash. When I suggested he wash it in cold water. He insisted that I didn’t know anything about laundry and said, ‘who the hell washes in cold water.’

After he finished complaining about his gift, he and my father-in-law argued over centimeters and inches on a measuring tape my husband had left on a table. At one point I stood in the middle of the kitchen, looked up at the ceiling and asked my mother and mother-in-law, “why did you leave me with these two men?” The answer came back: Take them to the only place they will behave. So, before it turned into name calling and two elderly men throwing punches at each other I rushed everyone to put on their coats and out of the house. “For the Christmas carols. We love the Christmas carols,” I said when my stepfather and father-in-law joined forces against me and fussed about sitting an hour in church before midnight mass. 

The next year I escaped to my father’s house in British Columbia. On the flight back, I realized Christmas would never be the same. It was time to adapt. Time to keep my father-in-law and stepfather away from each other. Time to make new memories. One year I made the Christmas cakes, but no one ate them. They were concerned about being stopped by the Ride Program. Years have passed. I have wonderful memories of those days, and in the fall when the leaves turn red and gold, I remember me and my mother-in-law grinding fruit, baking the cakes and icing them under the supervision of Theresa. And every year I think, next year I’m going to pull out the Christmas cake recipe.


Sheila Horne the author of three novels which she calls the Sun Series: Sunshine GirlsPaper Sun and Place in the Sun. She is also the co-author of Temple of Light, a book of poems inspired by the Sharon Temple. Her poems and short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies., author or