Category Archives: Rituals, festivals, holidays

Simnel Cake or Judas doesn’t get a marzipan egg for Easter

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this Easter tradition of a cake his mother used to bake.

“And then this is something my mom did… I’ve never heard it done anywhere else… for Easter she would bake a cake and make eleven marzipan eggs and put them on top of it… and it represented each of the disciples… except for Judas (laughs). I think it was a white cake… or I think a plain yellow… we always went outside and took an Easter picture with one of us five kids holding the cake.”

When I researched this, I found that this is a traditional cake known as a Simnel Cake. This tradition goes back to medieval times and started out as something more like bread than cake. Simnel comes from the Latin Simila – a fine white flour. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was something more like pudding. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became recognizable as cake and the marzipan eggs don’t appear until the 20th century. It is described as a fruit cake, but lighter than the traditional Christmas version. S didn’t mention fruit in the one his mom used to make, but the white cake would have been in line with the original use of fine white flour. For more information and a recipe please see https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/

An Orange in your Christmas Stocking

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this tradition of receiving an orange in his Christmas stocking and carrying it on with his family.

“An English tradition I like is that you would always get an orange in your stocking at Christmas time… because oranges were exotic I think… especially during the winter. That was something my mom shared with me and my siblings. And it was just for the kids, so… that made us feel special… I still do it… only it’s a chocolate orange now… Terry’s chocolate orange because I like chocolate! It’s a good feeling from my childhood…it’s a good memory from my childhood… and even though my family is diabetic now, I feel happy giving the chocolate orange now because it reminds us all of happy Christmases.”

According to an article in Smithsonian magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-we-should-bring-back-tradition-christmas-orange-180971101/), the tradition of an orange in Christmas stockings started in the 19th century and may be related to a legend about the real Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and three gold balls (bags, bars, or coins?) known as “the Miracle of the Dowries.” The orange was an affordable stand in for the gold, yet still a rare treat. In the early 1900s, the citrus industry incorporated the tradition in marketing campaigns featuring a cartoon Santa offering oranges as a healthy alternative to candy. Later, during the Great Depression, oranges took on renewed importance as an exotic and rare treat during hard times. The trajectory of this tradition reveals interesting intersections with the focus of Christmas moving away from a religious focus to a consumer one.

Getting Bruinized in the Fountain

CONTEXT:

L was born and raised in Sun Valley, Idaho. She is 20 years old and moved to Los Angeles to attend school at UCLA; she is now a sophomore. 

The context of this piece was at a little coffee shop at UCLA. I was visiting my best friend for the weekend. I asked her if she had any folklore to share with me and she excitedly told me all about a special ritual that UCLA partakes in every year.

TEXT:

“I mean at UCLA there’s a fountain that you’re supposed to get “bruinized” at where you touch the water once and say some crazy chant and you’re not allowed to touch the water again until after you take your last final. Otherwise you won’t graduate in 4 years…during freshmen orientation you’re supposed to wade in or touch the water. If you touch it again before your last final as a senior it’ll add an extra quarter before you graduate. After you take your last final people usually go and swim in it to celebrate.”

ANALYSIS:

UCLA hired Howard Troller to design a foundation on their campus; he used this as an opportunity to create something that was architecturally different from other fountains that “just squirt water into the air.” He designed an inverted fountain that flows inward into a large bed of rocks (handpicked by Troller himself.) Troller finished the fountain on March 18, 1968 and ever since, the fountain has been the location where UCLA students host one of their biggest traditions. During freshman orientation, freshmen are “initiated” by touching the water. They are then told to not touch the water again until they graduate; if they touch it before, it is said to be a bad omen – it may even add an extra quarter to their academic career.

Tamales with Olives

CONTEXT: 

RR is one of my best friends and roommates. She is a sophomore at USC who enjoys crocheting, writing poetry, and making me laugh. 

TEXT: 

Me: “Ok, so now, tell me the story about the olives.”

R: “(laughs) tamales with olives, Sophia. So every Christmas, it’s a tradition in my family that we make—We have tamales.

That’s like the main course of the meal on Christmas. 

And my grandma spends weeks preparing, like literally hundreds of tamales.”

Me: “What goes in them?”

R: “I’m not allowed to know the recipe because my grandma is still alive. 

When she passes away, it will pass down. 

But yeah, it’s a secret but it’s basic like masa flour. 

And then the corn husk is what it’s wrapped in. 

And then the fillings.”

Me: “Did her mom make them too?”

R: “Yeah. Or well, her mom is Italian but they grew up in Arizona 

in a Mexican community. 

But my grandpa is like Mexican Mexican (from Mexico)

But, anywho

but um, in the middle there’s red chili, and there’s green chili and it’s usually pork,

And they do an assembly line.

and then one person will put the masa in the corn husk, 

and then the other person will put the filling 

and then it’s one person’s job to put a single olive in every little tamale. 

And if you forget it, it’s bad luck 

when you eat it and a tamale that doesn’t have an olive in it. It’s bad luck.”

Me: “What does it mean?” 

R: “Well, it’s Christmas and the time of the new year. 

There’s also traditions where you eat grapes. 

So things shaped like that, like little fruits of the earth are supposed to make you have a fruitful New Year. 

And so that’s what the olives mean.”

Me: “Okay, and if you don’t get one, you’re not gonna have a fruitful year?”

R: “Not necessarily, but it’s better that you get one with one of them.”

ANALYSIS:

Making tamales for Christmas is a major tradition in many Hispanic cultures. Corn was commonly viewed as the “substance of life” because God supposedly made humans from corn. In regards to the olive part, after further investigation, each tamale can be viewed as a symbol for the Holy Virgin. The olive is supposed to represent baby Christ waiting to be born (as he was on Christmas).

Mardi Gras Cake

CONTEXT: 

E is a junior at Bates University where she skies for their cross country team. She grew up with me in Sun Valley, Idaho.

TEXT: 

Me: “How does your family celebrate Mardi Gras?”

E: “Well there is this figurine, a little, small plastic, baby. 

They bake it into a cake

And when the figurine—or—when you’re cutting the cake, 

whoever gets the baby is supposed to pay for the cake next year.”

Me: “Did you ever get the baby and pay for the cake?” 

E: “No. They would just always tell me that I had to buy the cake next year—I was about 10 years old when I got the baby, 

but it was a very exciting moment to get the baby and I would keep it forever and ever.”

Me: “What does the tradition mean?”

E: “It’s from a biblical story. 

The three kings who brings gifts to Baby Jesus 

The baby represents Jesus

the cake was always the colors of Mardi Gras—

Purple, Yellow and green.”

ANALYSIS:

Receiving the baby (who represents Jesus) in your slice of cake, symbolizes luck and prosperity. In E’s family, the person who gets the baby has to pay for next year’s cake, however, traditionally receiving the baby means that the finder become the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the evening.

To read more about these cakes, and a different variation on the story you can click this link:

https://www.southernliving.com/holidays-occasions/mardi-gras/king-cake-meaning