COFFEE SHOP TALK⎯Christmas Cakes

A friend’s photo of her fruitcake brings back memories of my mother-in-law and I baking Christmas cakes from a recipe handed down to her from her mother-in-law. The first week of October we would grind the fruit and soak the mush in wine and rum. It sat in a jar on the kitchen counter until the end of November. At which time we made the cakes under the guidance of her mother-in-law’s spirit who looked over us, making sure we followed the instructions. Once they finished baking, my mother-in-law poked holes on top of the cakes, poured wine over them and sealed them. Christmas week we iced them with marzipan and royal icing. 

During the week of cake baking, my mother-in-law would invite my younger son, who couldn’t keep a secret, over for a visit-just the two of them. While I walked him over to her house, I would warn, “do not tell Nana what we are giving her and Poppa for Christmas.” But my mother-in-law was very persuasive 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 setting at Christmas 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 was a comedy out of Christmas movie. It started 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. “Who washes in cold water?” he said. “Never heard of it.”

After he finished complaining about his gift, him and my father-in-law argued over centimeters and inches on the measuring tape. Over the years, when their spouses were around, they tolerated each other. Without their wives, there was no stopping them. It was war-all about the better man. The only thing to do: take them to the one place where they would behave. I rushed everyone to put on their coats and out of the house. “For the Christmas carols,” I said when my stepfather and father-in-law joined forces and fussed about having to sit an hour in church before midnight mass. 

The next year I escaped to my father’s house in British Columbia and spent Christmas with my family. On the flight back, I realized Christmas of past years was over. The numbers at the dinner table were dwindling. My sons were growing up. Time to adapt, make changes and fresh memories. There have been many Christmases since those days and I have fond memories of them. But the ones of baking with my mother-in-law will always have a special place in my heart. 

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Sheila Horne graduated from George Brown’s Creative Writing Program and is the author of three novels: Sunshine Girls, Paper 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. To read more, visit, author or

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