Christmas is a time of delight, of families brought together in front of the hearth, sharing hearty meals and telling stories, of happy children sleeping in piles of gift wrap, etc. I don't have to tell you that - you already know it.
But what you may not know, especially if you were born after 1970 or so, is how Christmas used to be. You see, all that comfort and joy used to come at a price, and for me the price was a four-inch-thick brick of holy terror prepared by my Aunt Claire.
You kids, let me tell you - you're lucky to live in a world where fruitcake is no longer inexplicably considered a treat. But in my day, there was a vast conspiracy comprised of seemingly all the adults I knew to pretend that the stuff was tasty and, more insidiously, that it was a good present to get.
Because let me tell you, I did not consider it to be a terrific boon when on Christmas Eve I dumped out the contents of my stocking to find that the heavy lump would turn out to be an ingot of Aunt Claire's fruitcake all wrapped up in cheesecloth with a little ribbon. I had hoped might be Spanish doubloons or a shrunken head or, in the very least, a bunch of ammunition.
At least you could put the fruitcake in a sock and swing it around your head as a weapon, so it was not without at least some value as an object. But no, that wasn't enough. My brother, Neil, and my sister Elaine and I all had to try it while Aunt Claire watched. One by one we'd be served slices of the stuff, and each slice contained altogether too many bright neon bits of something that was, presumably, fruit-related in some past life. Alongside those, there were something that I couldn't identify - either grounded up Christmas ornaments or mouse skulls.
As we children watched, the gall rising in our poor little throats, we'd watch as the slices were distributed. I could tell already that there was something amiss because, in defiance of the normal order, the kids got bigger slices than the parents. I knew that meant funny business.
My Aunt Claire, who was really my dad's Aunt, was a big, jolly woman known for her cooking. She was also rather well off, by Lewistown's standards, without really having anything to do, especially by the time she was in her 70s. Though I'm sure her heart warmed at the thought of her family, there were three things that she really loved: rum, brandy, and fruitcake. That fruitcake contained rum and was finished with brandy served, for her, as an elegant proof of the existence of a loving God.
Now she handed me a plate positively loaded up with a slab of fruitcake.
"Here you go, Gary! Num num! Have some cake!"
"Oh, thank you, Aunt Claire. I'd love to!" I'd take the plate, and then turn around and make the international symbol for gagging for the benefit of my brother and sister. Oh, and about those plates. Aunt Claire had sent off to God knows where for the fanciest fine china she could find. As a kid, I assumed that meant that she had them shipped over from Shanghai, and as an adult, I still don't know if that's not the case. At any rate, her fine china, like her formal living room, occupied some kind of liminal netherspace. On one hand, you could never use it, for it was far too dear. On the other hand, you had to use it whenever you came to visit or, blech, had to eat some of her Christmas fruitcake.
The end result was that, as you took little bites and nodded admiringly, she would say, "oh, just look at the pattern on that china, would you? I picked it out from over 200 designs! I agonized over them, dear! Which is why, and I hate to ask this, but would you mind not clinking your fork against the dish quite so hard? It's just, you know, they're practically irreplaceable!"
Here was another gulf between the parents and the children that led me to wonder if they weren't pulling something over on us. Were we really supposed to get excited about the picture on a plate? The only way I could have gotten excited about the picture on a damn plate would be if it had Hopalong Cassidy, Frankenstein, or maybe Jayne Mansfield. Yet all of these adults were carrying on over a peacock and a basket of fruit.
"Simply gorgeous," my mother said.
Eventually Aunt Claire would ask what you thought of the fruitcake. And she wouldn't be satisfied with a tight-lipped smile and an exaggerated "mmmm!" She wanted to watch you carve off a chunk of her pungent, booze-soaked fluorescent pemmican, stick it right in your gob, chew laboriously, swallow, and then give a tight-lipped smile and an exaggerated "mmmm!"
Thus she would blithely proceed from child to child, watching them suffer through their bite and smiling all the while. And let me tell you, I understand that alcohol cooks off when it bakes in something, but the cake smelled a little stronger and spicier than formaldehyde. I cross my heart, scout's honor, that all three of us felt tipsy by the end of a slice, though, unfortunately, not the fun, giddy kind of tipsy, but the down-in-your-cups kind. This was noticeably exacerbated by the difficulty my body had in digesting whatever made up the parts of the fruitcake that didn't glow in the dark. I felt as if there were a big lump of coal there in the stocking of my stomach.
Our parents and whatever family and friends else might happen to be present would all moon over the cake. You might chalk it up to politeness, but this extravagant praise went beyond the bounds of reasonable civility. They acted like they were tucking into the best thing they'd ever eaten, as if it made steak and lobster taste like hot dogs and tuna.
"You've really outdone yourself this year, Claire. It's so moist! How do you do that?"
"Well, I'll tell you, but you mustn't let it leave the room."
She leaned in to tell the other adults that the secret. While other recipes only included liqueur (at least she pronounced it that way; I'm sure she meant liquor) at the end, she favored soaking the candied fruits in liquor as well, and adding a generous splash to the batter as well. And, though she didn't say as much, I gather that she might have poured herself a nice tall snifter of liquor to aid in its preparation as well.
It took me some years, but I realized later that this was probably the secret of the adult's apparent enjoyment of Aunt Claire's fruitcake. At every stage in its journey, from having been assembled, to having been encased in wax, until, finally, don't forget, it's consumption too, its passage through this world had been lubricated by booze.
Us kids were the only ones sober enough to know how truly terrible it was.
[Go ahead, I dare you. Look back at all the times in your life that you said you enjoyed fruitcake. I absolutely guarantee you were either lying, or drunk. I have no doubt you are now nodding along in agreement.]
I miss Aunt Claire. She was a lovely woman, always joyful and kind, quick to give you a little present, or a sweet when you went to visit. And I can personally attest that every other example of her cooking that I ever ate was delicious.
But that fruitcake was an abomination. And frankly, the only way that it at all contributed to my personal Christmas spirit was that, as I chewed it, the texture somehow wet, gritty and crunchy all at once, I was moved to consider the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birthday we were about to celebrate.
I knew that however awful eating this fruitcake was, the suffering endured by our Savior on the cross was probably even a little bit worse.
And then, half blotto from the intensely alcoholic vapor of the fruitcake, we quite literally leaped into our beds that night. We dreamed of glazed ham, hot cocoa, toys all wrapped up, the singular good mood that always came over our parents on Christmas.
But above all, we slept secure in the knowledge that the hard part was over.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.