The Christmas Cake


" But how will I eat cake if my head is over there, and my hands are over here ? ” 

(Marie Antoinette)


Monday 10th December 1962 -  I am 13 years old and attend a Catholic convent school.

Today in DS (Domestic Science), we are going to make Christmas cakes. Last week, Sister Mercy made us write down the recipe. She asked us to take it home and explain to our mothers (not fathers !) that these ingredients must be purchased and the appropriate quantities should be weighed out, bagged securely and labelled, so that we could be ready to bring them to school for today’s cooking lesson. 

Due to lack of oven facilities, only half the class will be cooking their cakes today. The others will do the same task tomorrow.

Sister Mercy enters the room. She is the youngest nun in the convent. Probably still in her twenties. She has a gentle face and manner. “Right girls. Find a place and sit down. Bring your ingredients and place them in front of you on the counter.”

We all ferret around in our school bags for the items required and carry them to a place. I sit next to Andrea Marsden.

There is an anguished cry from Sylvia Cranford.

Sister Mercy goes over to her, thinking perhaps she has been taken ill. “What is it, Sylvia ?”

Sylvia is, by now, weeping profusely. Some of the girls start sniggering. Andrea and I throw them dirty looks. Sylvia is a sad case. She is painfully thin, no doubt underfed. She’s one of eight children, her parents being good Catholics. Her uniform is always mucky and, unfortunately, she has BO. (Body Odour) I thought maybe her parents can’t afford deodorants. Andrea has told me that they only have an outside lavvy and a standpipe in the yard, so it’s hard to have a proper wash, especially in the winter. Poor Sylvia. I don’t know where the money came from to buy those ingredients and now it seems, they were not packed securely enough and have tipped out into her bag.

“Never mind now,” says Sister Mercy kindly, putting her arm around Sylvia who is kneeling on the floor, snivelling, desperately trying to re-bag her ingredients.

We wait patiently. I stare furiously at Dora and Elda. They are miming the unfortunate Sylvia in her desperate attempt to recover her wares. 

Sister Mercy has her back to me. I slip off my seat and go over to where they are sitting. I whisper viciously to them, “pack that in now, or your ingredients will be going the same way.”

“You and whose army will do that ?” sneers Dora.

Andrea joins me and gives them a threatening glare.

At this point, Sister Mercy sees Sylvia to her seat with what’s left of her ingredients. She turns to face us all. 

“Right let’s get on.”

Sylvia is seated close to me. I whisper loudly. “I brought more than I need, so you can have some of my things if you need them.”

Sylvia gives me a watery smile.

Sister Mercy makes us work together as a unit, completing each stage before moving on to the next.

“Everybody will follow this method. Once the mixture is prepared, the cake will need to cook for about three hours. You will finish your task by putting the mixture into your cake tin. I will place the cakes in the ovens at Gas Mark 2 for three hours. You will return at home-time to collect your cakes. Is that clear ?”

“Yes, Sister,” we all mumble.

 “Very well. Now put all your dried fruit, the chopped nuts and cherries, into the large bowl I have provided.”

She waits for us all to complete this task.

“Now, squeeze the orange juice into the bowl and grate in some of the peel. Not too much now.”

“Cooking by numbers !” Andrea whispers to me. We giggle.

Mam had studied the recipe and told me that this was the point at which a good tablespoon of alcohol should be added. Needless to say, alcohol is not used in this school. Mam, being Mam though, had given me a small tablet tube containing a swig or two of what she called  the ‘Water of the Liffey’, to add in along with the orange juice. I sneak a drop into Andrea’s as well. The tube is then secreted away in my pocket.

Sister Mercy walks around the tables inspecting the results so far. When she stops at me, my heart gives a jump. I pray Sister Mercy can’t smell alcohol, but she simply looks into the bowl and says, “nice moist mixture, Minnie-May. You clearly chose some juicy oranges. Well done.”

Returning to the front of the room, Sister Mercy instructs, “Now cream the butter and sugar together with your fork in the smaller bowl. Be careful to ensure the butter is well mixed in.”

After this Sister Mercy carries out another inspection round. She tells Dora to mix hers for longer as some of the butter has not been absorbed. Dora looks furious. I catch her eye and stick out my tongue. She shrugs and turns away.

“When you’ve done that, add the sugar and butter mix into the fruit. Then, break your four eggs into the mix and beat it thoroughly.”

We have been issued with a hand beater each. It takes some beating. There are giggles and grumbles, but finally, Sister Mercy is satisfied with everyone’s result.

“Finally, fold in the flour and spices. Again, check to be sure all the ingredients are well assimilated.”

She does another tour, making comments here and there. At last she says that we can put the bowls to one side.

“Now then. You need to grease your 8 inch cake tin. Use your fingers and rub it in well. Then, line the base and sides of your tin with two layers of greaseproof paper. Spoon your mixture into the tin very carefully…I said carefully, Maureen.”

The offending girl blushes and uses a teaspoon to halt the lava flow and retrieve the lost mix.

“Finally, use your string to tie a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin.”

Sister Mercy then tells us to stop work and put down our utensils. We wash-up and dry all the tools and equipment in pairs and help to put everything back in its place. When the room has been satisfactorily cleaned and tidied, Sister Mercy dismisses us with a reminder to return at 4pm to collect our cakes.

Upon returning home with my cake, I place the tin containing same on the kitchen worktop. Theresa and Bridget materialise from nowhere.

“Let’s have a look,” insists Theresa.

I open the tin for their perusal.

“Looks like a cake,” says Theresa, disappointed that it isn’t made of stone or burnt black.

“Can we taste it ?” asks Bridget.

“Certainly not. I have to put a layer of marzipan on it and then ice it. I have to take it back to school next week to show to our teacher.”

“Couldn’t we just have a tiny sliver off the top ?” pleads Bridget. “Nobody would notice because you are going to cover it up with icing.”

Theresa gets a sharp knife from the drawer. She goes to the tin as if to attack the cake.

“Oi, get your maulers off.” I try to snatch the knife from Theresa’s hand.

“Ow, ow, you’ve cut me,” squeals Theresa.

“What’s going on ?” enquires Dad’s voice.

“She trying to cut my Christmas cake,” I complain petulantly, glaring at the offender.

Dad walks over to the tin and looks inside. “I must say that looks very tasty. Smells good too.”

“Well they’re not having any,” I sulk.

“Give me the knife, Dotty.” Dad holds out his hand. Theresa reluctantly places the knife, handle first, on the outstretched limb. (Dotty is Theresa’s nickname. I say it’s because she’s barmy)

Dad puts the knife on the worktop and examines Theresa’s hand and arm, turning it over and looking close up with his eyes almost touching her arm. “Can’t see a wound. Just bandage up the mouth to be sure, would you Doctor ?” He looks at me and winks.

“Don’t tempt me.” I reply.

The lid is placed back on the tin. A peace agreement is negotiated. Each member of the family will be allowed a slice of my cake on the first day of the school holiday.


Sunday 16th December 1962

I have to take my Christmas cake into school tomorrow. Sister Mercy wants to see them. She has told us that as a treat we can each cut and eat a slice of our own cake. It will also enable her to see the interior of the cakes. There is to be a judging by Mother Bernadette.

Yesterday, Mam helped me with the marzipan. It’s not easy to get the right consistency, so Mam said, add a dusting of icing sugar if the almond paste gets too wet. I had to knead the marzipan gently, so as to get a smooth dough. Then I spread apricot jam all over the exterior of the cake. I had to roll and cut the marzipan so that I had a circle for the top of the cake and a strip to fix around the side. There weren’t supposed to be any cracks in the marzipan. Mine had cracks, so I smoothed them over with my fingers.

Today, I plan to ice the cake. It’s easy just to mix the milk and icing sugar. It looks a bit boring, so I’ve thought of the idea of adding a tiny drop of cochineal to give the icing a soft red glow. I’m also using cochineal to make tiny icing balls into holly berries for cake decoration and green colouring to make holly leaves. I add what I think is the tiniest of drops of cochineal into the icing mix. It looks rather too much like pillar box red, although it’s quite nice. I decide to add a little green to tone down the red. The result is a kind of dirty purple ! I plough on and coat the cake with the icing. The colour’s growing on me. It’s rather hippyish; trendy. A creative, modern take on the traditional cake. I add the decorations. As I stand back to admire my creation, Mam comes into the kitchen. I stand back to show off my masterpiece. I can see the instant expression on her face. She changes it to a smile in a split second, but it’s too late.

“It’s awful, isn’t it ?”

“No…no, not awful. It’s…different.”

“Ah, well that’s what I wanted to achieve. Something different to all the other boring white cakes.” I try to sound convincing.

“Well, it’s interesting, I’ll say that for it.” Mam is trying not to laugh.

My temporary enthusiasm for the purple cake dissolves. I no longer feel individual or courageous. I feel tears welling up. 

I look pleadingly at Mam. “Sister Mercy will be disappointed, but our cakes are being judged by Mother Bernadette. She will have me in the confessional before you can say Jack Robinson.”

Mam gives me a hug. “Listen, purple has a significance in religion. I’ll help you do a bit of research. I’ve got at least one book which will tell us something about  symbolism in the bible.”

That’s my Mam, always a solution to any problem. 

I leave the offending cake on the worktop and follow Mam to the bookshelves in the dining room. 

Mam browses through. “Here, we are. This should do it.”

We sit together and Mam reads to me. 

“Purple combines the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red. Purple is made by combining two colours. Red represents Jesus shedding his blood for us. Blue, suggests his dwelling place, as heaven is blue like the sky. Having received forgiveness through his blood, we will one day enter into Heaven and see our King.”

This sounds brilliant. “Yes,” I say excitedly, “and Jesus was King of Kings, so the colour purple would be used for his clothing as a tribute to him.”

Mam nods. “or even a cake ! You can write this down and remember it. You can use it to explain your choice of colour for the icing."

She continues reading. “Purple is often associated with royalty, nobility and power. It also represents creativity, wisdom, dignity, devotion, peace, pride, mystery, independence, and magic. Purple is a royal colour because it was difficult to make before modern artificial colours existed, so it was very expensive to produce. It was worn by royalty…”

“Thanks so much, Mam. I think you’ve saved my skin.”

Mam laughs. There’s always a solution to every problem !”


Monday 17th December 1962

Today I’m taking the dreaded cake into school. The time comes. In the DS room, Sister Mercy asks us to open our tins, remove the cakes and place them on the plates provided. We all comply. 

Sister Mercy walks around, nodding and smiling until she comes to mine.

“Dearie me, Minnie-May, what is this ?”

I swallow hard. “I chose this purple, Sister, to make my cake a little bit different. Purple is the colour………..”

The door opens and Mother Bernadette sweeps in. Sister Mercy leads the way around the tables, so that Mother Bernadette can inspect each cake. She makes approving noises and speaks to each girl in turn. 

“Well done, Maria.” Lovely cake, Edna.” Good effort, Sylvia.” and so on.

She comes to mine. The expression on her face changes from benevolence to disgust. She points at the cake as if it is a filthy rag. “What is this ? Is this yours Minnie-May Houghton ?”

“Yes, Mother.” I try to sound confident, but my voice squeaks.

“And what is the meaning of this monstrosity ?”

“Well, you see, Mother…”

I am interrupted. “This is blasphemy. An insult to Our Lord.”

“No, Mother.”

“NO ?” Mother Bernadette’s face has turned purple. Despite my precarious situation, I have an urge to say, “well if my cake’s blasphemous, so is your face.” Of course, I daren’t.

“No. Please may I explain ?”

“Well ?” Mother Bernadette snaps.

I try to stay calm and talk about purple being the colour of Kings; a colour which illustrates respect. I then give a speech which is what I learned off by heart from the reading Mam found. 

“As you will know, purple is made by combining two colours. Red represents Jesus, Our Lord, shedding his blood for us. Blue, suggests his dwelling place, as heaven is blue like the sky. Having received forgiveness through his blood, we will one day enter into Heaven and see our King. This is why I thought of the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth with a purple cake.”

In fairness, Mother Bernadette listens to me. As I speak, her expression softens. 

“M’mm,” she responds. “I can see that you had an idea which ties in with the celebration of Our Lord’s birth…” She pauses. To my relief, she continues. “Do you give me your word that this was done with the best of intentions ?”

“I hang my head and try to look meek. “Oh, indeed I do, Mother.”

“Very well. Please remember though, that trying to be different from others is a sin. Obedience is required at all times.”

“Yes, Mother,” I reply, submissively. Phew ! Well done, Mam.

After finishing her rounds, Mother Bernadette returns to the front of the class. “The winner is Anne O’Leary.”

Anne is invited to the front of the room and we applaud her.

“Well done, dear,” says Mother Bernadette, holding out a hand to be shaken.

Andrea shakes her hand. I bet she’s hoping for a prize.

“I will say an extra prayer for you this evening.”  

This is the prize bestowed. Anne returns to her seat, making a surreptitious vomiting gesture for my benefit.