Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, also called Gaudete Sunday. For some inexplicable reason (early onset Alzheimer’s maybe?) I left out Gaudete Sunday last year when I was “unpacking” Christmas, so let me rectify that omission now. On the third Sunday in Advent we light the third candle on the Advent wreath: the candle of peace. On standard Western wreaths the third candle is pink or rose colored in contrast with the other three which are either violet or purple, and in traditions where clerical vestments are normal, rose is the preferred color of the day. You may also adorn the church with rose-colored articles. In the eastern Orthodox church, and some western European countries the candles on the wreath are all red, as is mine this year (lead photo). I haven’t changed denominations, I just can’t find violet or rose candles in Phnom Penh, but red ones are abundant.
The name “Gaudete” comes from the day’s introit in the Latin Mass of the day:
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.
This introit carol was made popular by Steeleye Span in the 1970s, but I prefer it in a clerical setting.
One year on this Sunday, when I was pastor at Livingston Manor, I had the choir process into church singing the chorus parts while I sang the solo from the gallery: very joyous (but not really traditional). The organist balked because I gave her my transcription from a medieval MS, as is – no measure lines. She was flummoxed, and solved the problem by marking them in. Oh dear! Classically trained musicians can be a pain.
Conventionally in Western liturgical traditions, confession and penance are suspended for Gaudete Sunday because it should be a day of unalloyed rejoicing. Forget about your past wrongdoing, and focus on the good things in your life. I’m always happy when I am cooking.
Here is a recipe for an Advent cake created by Jamie Oliver, which I have modified for Gaudete Sunday. Fruit cakes decorated with marzipan are the taste of Christmas for me. My two photos here give two different ideas. Either color all the marzipan rose, or leave most of the marzipan natural colored and decorate with pink roses of marzipan. In the latter case you will need extra marzipan.
Advent Fig Cake
For the cake
225g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp mixed spice (cloves, nutmeg, allspice)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
200g dark brown sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp orange marmalade
¼ tsp vanilla essence
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
800g dried figs, roughly chopped
100g mixed peel, chopped
150g glace cherries, halved
100g blanched almonds, chopped
200g marzipan plus extra for additional decorations.
1-2 tbsp orange marmalade, warmed
Soak the chopped dried figs, chopped mixed peel and glace cherries in 250ml brandy at least overnight, and preferably longer. I have soaked them for a month with good effect.
Heat the oven to 150C/300F Grease an 18cm/7inch square cake tin and line the bottom and sides with baking parchment.
Sieve the flour, salt, mixed spice and cinnamon into a bowl.
Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and then mix in the treacle, marmalade and vanilla essence until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, a little at a time, and add a tablespoon of the flour mixture at the end.
Fold in the remaining flour mixture, don’t use beaters, until well mixed and then mix in the dried fig, mixed peel, glace cherries and the chopped almonds.
Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the center.
Bake in the oven for 3 hours and then test with a toothpick. If it is not yet cooked through (there is dough sticking to the toothpick), continue baking, testing every 20 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Then turn out on to a wire rack and let cool completely.
Place the cooled cake on a cake plate.
Dust your hands with icing sugar and knead the marzipan. Add a little red food coloring to make it pink, and continue kneading until the marzipan is soft and the color is evenly distributed (if you are making a pink cake). If you are making a plain cake with decorations, knead the extra marzipan with coloring and knead the bulk of it without.
Roll out half the marzipan to fit the top of the cake and roll out the rest in strips to fit around the sides of the cake.
Brush the cake all over with the warmed orange marmalade and then place the marzipan on top and around the cake. Decorate as you see fit.
Cover the cake with a clean tea towel and then leave in a cool place for at least one day.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday in the ecclesiastical year in many churches in the West, and the beginning of Christmastide in general. I like to follow the church traditions for Christmas and Easter, rather than succumb to secular chaos. I have discussed my general idea about “unpacking” Christmas in many places – e.g. here http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-christmas/ I’ll give a quick synopsis now, and you can see how it works if you follow this blog to Christmas Day and beyond.
The simple way to think about the whole business is that Advent is not Christmas. Advent leads to Christmas in the same way that Lent leads to Easter. It is a time of preparation and anticipation. If you just plunge right into the whole pageant full bore, listening to carols or Christmas music blaring in stores, seeing images of Santa, angels, wise men, baby Jesus etc. etc. all jumbled together, having festive office and home parties, present shopping amidst frantic crowds, and all the rest of it, you are missing the whole contour of the season, and I am not surprised if you are exhausted by the time the 25th of December rolls around, and are glad when it’s over. If you take slow steps towards Christmas and prepare properly, the season unfolds slowly and joyously. You can savor each moment for what it is, and not try to cram it in all at once.
No one knows for sure when Advent was inaugurated as a church season. The earliest source asserting December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), writing very early in the 3rd century, and basing the date on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months. There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6th while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25th, and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts. Advent was added some time in the 5th century, it appears.
There was some kind of preparatory season before Christmas as early as 480 but it was the Council of Tours of 567 that firmly fixed the idea by ordering monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. Advent and Christmas were not, and still are not, as important in the Christian church as Easter, but you’d never know this given the secular hijacking of Christmas for commercial purposes. In fact, until the 19th century Christmas was a rather low-key affair, and it was Dickens more than anyone else who was responsible for raising its profile in the public eye. I’ll let the secular world do its thing whilst I continue to follow old church tradition.
For me, the Advent wreath is a tangible way to keep things in perspective. The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th century, but the modern Advent wreath took shape in the 19th. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor is credited as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath. Supposedly, during Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 24 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America.
The Advent wreath (or crown) nowadays can take many forms. Mine has four colored candles in a ring representing the 4 Sundays of Advent, and a white candle in the middle representing Christ. You start on the first Sunday of Advent by lighting one candle, then each successive Sunday you light one more until the whole circle is lit. Then on Christmas Eve you light all four plus the white candle, and do so again on Christmas Day. In this way you have the physical feeling of the season growing in intensity, Sunday by Sunday, instead of feeling as if everything has crashed down on you all at once.
I make my Advent crown by taking a plate, affixing the candles to it by melting wax to form their base (and making a mess in the process), then adding assorted bits and pieces – mostly sweets – as decoration. At the start it’s very simple, but it grows as the season progresses. The crown is not a static decoration, but an ever-evolving one.
The colors of the candles vary in different church traditions. In Protestant churches three are usually purple or violet symbolizing penitence, and one is rose (or pink). Sometimes people (especially in the Anglican and Methodist communions) use blue rather than violet. I’m not very fussy about such things; I tend to go with what I can find. The important point is to have one that is rose or red. In the current Catholic tradition, all the candles are red, representing the dominant Christmas color. It is a matter of choice whether you have a white Christ candle in the middle or not.
In different traditions the candles have different names and meanings. When I was a pastor I used the sequence of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy, with the rose candle signifying Peace. I’ll explore their separate meanings for me over the next three Sundays. For now let’s talk about HOPE. This is an easy one. I always light the first candle in the crown very early – in the darkness – on Sunday morning. I want the mental and physical image to be one of starkness and bareness with a single, frail light dispelling the gloom of night. That image, to me, symbolizes hope very clearly.
Music for the season is also important to me. Many churches just bang on with carols right from the start. But there are Advent hymns that are about hope and expectation, that in my mind should come first. This is a classic based on a 12th century Latin text, with a tune taken from Gregorian chant:
It gets slung into the general Christmas mix on CDs and such under the general rubric “Christmas music,” but deserves to be first, on its own, at the very beginning of Advent, then set aside.
Food preparation is a most important aspect of Advent for me. I already shared here my making of Christmas puddings last Sunday https://www.bookofdaystales.com/stir-up-sunday/ because that little nugget precedes Advent. But the bulk of Christmas food preparation takes place within Advent. There are a number of things that need time to mature. Mincemeat is one.
The name “mincemeat” often confuses people because they don’t understand the history of the recipe. For centuries mincemeat consisted of chopped meat with fruit, as was common in Medieval cookery. Gradually the fruit and sweet component came to be predominant, and the meat element was reduced to fat of some sort – usually suet. A few diehards still add meat, as I was wont to do years ago. Mincemeat is a thoroughly English Christmas tradition that has gradually spread to other parts of the world primarily the British Diaspora. Here’s a 16th century recipe for meat pies from A Propre new booke of Cookery (1545):
Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.
This is clearly a savory dish with sweet and sour notes. But even in the 19th century Mrs Beeton still calls for beef in the recipe, even though her mincemeat is for dessert pies:
INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of raisins, 3 lbs. of currants, 1-1/2 lb. of lean beef, 3 lbs. of beef suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 2 oz. of citron, 2 oz. of candied lemon-peel, 2 oz. of candied orange-peel, 1 small nutmeg, 1 pottle of apples, the rind of 2 lemons, the juice of 1, 1/2 pint of brandy.
Mode.—Stone and cut the raisins once or twice across, but do not chop them; wash, dry, and pick the currants free from stalks and grit, and mince the beef and suet, taking care that the latter is chopped very fine; slice the citron and candied peel, grate the nutmeg, and pare, core, and mince the apples; mince the lemon-peel, strain the juice, and when all the ingredients are thus prepared, mix them well together, adding the brandy when the other things are well blended; press the whole into a jar, carefully exclude the air, and the mincemeat will be ready for use in a fortnight.
Average cost for this quantity, 8s.
Seasonable.—Make this about the beginning of December.
This is a pretty hefty amount – over 12 pounds of mincemeat without adding in the pottle of apples, whatever that means. A pottle is half a gallon of liquid, but also a generic name for a container. Not important. The gist of the recipe is clear. She also gives the following which is far closer to modern recipes:
INGREDIENTS.—3 large lemons, 3 large apples, 1 lb. of stoned raisins, 1 lb. of currants, 1 lb. of suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 1 oz. of sliced candied citron, 1 oz. of sliced candied orange-peel, and the same quantity of lemon-peel, 1 teacupful of brandy, 2 tablespoonfuls of orange marmalade.
Mode.—Grate the rinds of the lemons; squeeze out the juice, strain it, and boil the remainder of the lemons until tender enough to pulp or chop very finely. Then add to this pulp the apples, which should be baked, and their skins and cores removed; put in the remaining ingredients one by one, and, as they are added, mix everything very thoroughly together. Put the mincemeat into a stone jar with a closely-fitting lid, and in a fortnight it will be ready for use.
Seasonable.—This should be made the first or second week in December.
Given her penchant for plagiarism, I doubt Mrs Beeton tested either recipe, but she got them from someone who did. For me, making mincemeat is a fairly simple, haphazard affair. I start with a mix of raisins, sultanas, and currants, and add about half again of grated suet. Then I add some apple chopped fine and finish the fruit mix with what crystallized fruits and candied peel I have on hand. Finally, I moisten the mix with lemon juice and brandy, stir in a fair amount of allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste, and bottle it up until Christmas, leaving it to mature in the back of a kitchen cupboard. If need be I add brandy on Sundays when I “feed” my puddings. It’s ready to use in pies by Christmas Eve.