I really value the traditions of Advent. The preparations for Christmas are almost more exciting than the day itself, a reminder that the world is worth it after all. We are reminded in Advent that as much as the world can disappoint us, it is worth saving, worth fighting for.
It is hard to know how to commemorate something as vast as the unearned salvation of humanity, but I do it by cooking. Not easy cooking either, special, extra effort, giant cooking. Fruitcakes and cookie mainly. The fruitcakes I have made for six years now and they come from a New York Times article published almost forty years ago. I do not follow the recipe exactly, altering and doubling it over the years, but each year in late November anticipating advent we buy about ten pounds of dried fruit, a liter and a half of brandy, 2 pounds of sugar, a pound of butter, and spices to make the ten cakes our recipe yields. It’s slow work, the fruit soaks overnight and even when the cakes are ready for the oven they bake for several hours only to then need to be soaked in brandy and wrapped tightly. Once ready though, they are durable and long-lasting. This first week of advent, I mail some of these cakes to friends across the country (to Massachusetts, Alabama, and California among other exotic destinations). My children are next to me, helping to chop fruit as well as to stir the massive bowl of batter bright with candied peel and the shiny edges of chopped dates.
My favorite culinary moment comes when we heat molasses in a pot with mace, cinnamon, cocoa, nutmeg, and clove. The smell is perfect Christmas. It is also a reminder of how to make the most of things in bleak times. Though all that candied fruit isn’t cheap it is a reminder that the bounty of other parts of the year can be preserved as a gift and sustenance to our future selves. To preserve and save and hope as the natural world around us dies and grows dormant, this is what advent is about.This past weekend to welcome Advent, I made Cucidati, a Sicilian fig cookie. The process is labor-intensive with lots of grinding and chopping of dried fruit and a lot of rolling and shaping of cookie dough. Then, like with many Italian cookies, each piece needs to be frosted with a milk and powdered sugar glaze and covered in small sprinkles (often called confetti in Italian). The process is meditative, frustrating, and enriching. For decades now, we have been sold on being busy as a default state of virtue, but to make time for these efforts is to make time for others and for ourselves. To create out of what we have tucked away to make things for others.
If you have family traditions like this, make time for them, even if you have only a distant childhood memory and no living relatives to provide the recipe. Like Julia Sahni recreating her favorite childhood fruitcake in the NYT article above, you can start traditions over. Make time for cooking not just as work or pleasure but as prayer and a sign of hope.
Advent is especially important to me because it was at the beginning of Advent many years ago that I decided to come back to the mass on a regular basis. I had always defined myself as a cultural Catholic but had not found a parish home yet. That Advent, right as the first candle was lit, I came back and found a home that has nourished me for years.
We bake now because we know a celebration is coming. These acts of celebration are also preparation for the incarnation. We give these sweet things to others to welcome the sweetness of the Incarnation into their lives too. That’s worth a few hours and a messy kitchen.