Christmas Cake


Christmas Cake

by Michael D. O’Brien

Suppose you live in a small town in the hill country, far from the big cities. And suppose that just down the road from you there lives a quiet sort of family about whom there isn’t anything outstanding, except that they are devoted to each other and are very devout in the practice of their faith. The dad is a carpenter who makes furniture in his shop beside their small house. The mother is a “home-maker,” a lovely person really. Their ten-year-old son is a polite sort of lad, helps his dad in the shop, is serious by nature, never says much but is ever-ready to smile at the drop of a hat. You meet him sometimes while walking along the country road or tromping through the bush; you turn a corner or step over a log and there he is kneeling beside a pond watching a beaver build a dam, or there he is gazing up into a tree branch listening to newborn robins chirping in their nest. That’s him—just listening, just looking. He notices you, smiles, bows a little, then seems to gaze at you as if you were as wonder-full as the world. He’s not shy, just quiet. Like his dad, he carves small wooden toys as gifts for the other children in the neighborhood. There’s something special about him, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Suppose the mother of that family is busy baking cakes one day in preparation for a feast day. Suppose she asks your wife if she can borrow a dozen eggs and a cup of sugar. Your wife asks you to drop it off on the way to the local supermarket. You do. The mother of that family invites you in for a cup of tea. You accept. You go in and sit at their hand-hewn pine table in the kitchen. Everything inside their house is simple—well-made but humble. The atmosphere is full of peace. You listen to the sound of two hammers tapping away in the workshop next door. The mother serves you tea and a plate of buttered bread. Like her husband and child she is a quiet person, never says much. But you don’t feel uncomfortable in her silence because it’s as if she’s always speaking—speaking with her eyes, her smile, her presence. You know, without being told, that you are welcome. You are at home.

You sip the tea and nibble the bread as you observe her attentiveness to every detail in the making of the cakes. You can see that she wants it to be right.

“You’re making cakes?” you ask, knowing the answer.

She nods and smiles—the smile going deep into your heart. There’s no smile like it in the world, at least not that you’ve encountered.

You know that sometime soon you will find a surprise package on your doorstep, or maybe it will be delivered by the lady’s son, with a smile and a look. When you unwrap the package you will find within it a splendid cake, and probably a small wooden bird.

All of the above is imagination, of course. But it might have happened. You might have been there. And maybe, in a sense, you have been there but didn’t recognize it.

I remember watching a dear friend make Christmas cakes. Her name was Mary. She was eighty years old at the time, suffered from diabetes, did not see very well, and walked with difficulty. She lived far out in the country in a small winterized cabin not far from our house. She was a single woman who had devoted her life to teaching native children on Indian reserves. Retired, she lived with a rather rambunctious mongrel dog named Taffy, a stray she had taken into her home one blustery winter’s night, and permanently adopted. She had lived for many years as a consecrated virgin and was a lay member of Our Lady’s Secular Servite order.

Much of Mary’s life was now spent watching the traffic of birds, squirrels, and the occasional wolf out on the ice of the lake in front of her cabin. She read a lot and she prayed a lot and she observed with a reflective eye the ever-astonishing little things of nature. Listening deeply, looking deeply. Though she had many crosses to bear, not once in all the years I had known her did I hear her utter a word of complaint. You would never have guessed by her quietness and her very simple way of life that she was only a credit or two short of a doctorate in education. You would never have guessed that she prayed numerous rosaries every day. She was gentle and humorous and every so often, in a rather unassuming voice, she would come out with an insight that was simply dazzling, lingering like a beacon in the mind. She passed away a few years ago, and we miss her a lot.

On that day, in the last Advent before her death, as she limped back and forth across her kitchen, between the steaming stove and counter, then over to the refrigerator and back to the pans, it was obvious that each step cost something in terms of pain. She was absorbed in a hundred details, myriad decisions, any one of which might change the texture, the taste, the peculiar charm of this cake. The cakes were her annual Christmas gifts to family and neighbors.

Of course, we all could have gone out to the supermarket and bought a package of commercial Christmas cake for $5.95. It would not have been as heavy, as deep, dark, and rich as hers, but it would have passed. It would have looked like Christmas cake. It would have smelled like it, and it would, no doubt, have been sweet on the tongue in a tired, generic, mass-produced way. It would have been efficient cake. But it would not have been Mary’s cake. It would not have had her care, her kindness, and her sacrifices in it. Nor her wisdom. Nor her years and years of Christmases in the lonely remote institutions of the Northwest. It would not have contained, nor fully expressed, her powerful love.

That day she moved slowly and spoke slowly, though her mind was as sharp as the game of crack-the-whip my children were playing out on the ice of the lake. It was late afternoon. The sky was deep indigo blue and the first star had appeared. The wind had blown the lake clean of snow and the kids were skating deliriously in all that space and freedom. We watched them from the kitchen window. They were young and strong. They did not really believe in pain. Their future was ahead of them and they were eager to embrace it. The children of hope. The children of the coming new springtime.

Mary smiled as she followed the antics, but before long she went back to fuss and brood over the mysterious instruments of her art.

“Can I help you, Mary?” I asked.

“No, no,” she smiled, shaking her head.

“That’s an awful lot of work,” I said sympathetically, foolishly, nodding at the stove.

“It has to be right,” she said, “It has to be all right or it’s not right at all.”

I thought about that. And it struck me suddenly how different my generation is from hers. She told me once that people have changed a lot since she was a young woman. It’s true. We are different. We rush through our lives trying to get it all in, trying to get too many things done too fast. And as a result we make hasty decisions. We do not appreciate things very much. We are seldom grateful. We work and play and shop and “have liturgies” on the run. We cook and eat on the run. We consume news and entertainment and education on the run. We “improve” our minds on the run. We strain toward some elusive concept of “success” on the run. We settle for junk food, mass-produced filler that looks and smells and even tastes like food. We rarely choose to make a thing slowly and carefully with passionate love for its meaning. We have developed the habit of doing many things poorly, rather than a few things well. Is it really possible to think clearly in such a state? Is it possible to listen? Is it possible to worship deeply? Would we recognize a poor baby and a star?

And what of the “spiritual” food that seems to have become our daily diet in many countries of the Western world. In recent years, we have grown accustomed to mass-produced projects and platitudes, half-baked spiritual concoctions that may be pleasant on the tongue, but fail to nourish. I am thinking here of certain theological products that are dead letters, not living words—clever recipes, well decorated, lacking substance. And what about those dishes in which good ingredients are mixed with some very odd ingredients. I am thinking here of certain branches of Catholic education and media and “pastoral” offices that offer us disordered teachings as if this were normal fare.

We are being programmed to eat many a cake into which this or that cook has mixed tacks, bolts, and nails. But I am wondering if we should be quite so reassured when they tell us that they graduated from the best schools of cuisine. Should we be relieved when they tell us that the cake contains some excellent ingredients as well as the “controversial” ones? And when they advise us not to worry about the new recipe, because, after all, our diet has been lacking in minerals of late, should we trust their judgment just because it’s true that tacks, bolts, and nails are composed of minerals?

Yes, their cake may look good, smell good, and even taste good—until the real chewing begins. But if we trust this kind of cook long enough we will have a household full of broken teeth and torn stomachs. And in the end we will be very hungry indeed.

The children of the new springtime need good food. Perhaps we would be wise to find an old cook who knows what hunger is and what real food is. As for me and my house, I think we’ll stick with the wisdom of Mary, who says that a cake must be all good or it’s no good at all.

+ + +