Nativity Cake

When our first two children were very little, I wanted to establish some God-honoring traditions for Christmastime. I didn’t think that the traditions of our parents were focused enough on the Nativity of Christ.

As an example, no one in our Protestant circles, even we who believed in the reality of the Christmas story, went to church on Christmas Day, and we missed a big opportunity to teach our children, and to know God, by praxis. It’s too bad, however it happened, that the tradition of not worshiping and communing on Christmas got started.

In any case, lacking a Christmas Day church tradition, we were on our own. I wanted the children to have more than a Christmas tree and presents, and one thing I contrived was a birthday cake for Jesus. It should be some special kind of cake that we would never eat any other time of year.

I found a recipe in Sunset Magazine for Dried Fruit Loaves, and as I scanned the ingredients list I reasoned, from my young-marrieds-on-a-shoestring perspective, that only Christmas extravagance would make me willing to invest in that amount of dried fruit and nuts.

So I’ve been adapting it and baking it without fail for about 38 years. Most years I made four times the original recipe and gave away various sizes of loaves. There is very little to it besides the fruit and nuts, and everyone still loves to slice a thin piece or two for a wholesome snack, all through the Twelve Days of Christmas or however long the bread lasts.

this week’s loaves

We don’t usually sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus anymore. All those children grew up and are teaching their own children about Christ’s Incarnation, and I’m not often with them to light a candle on the cake. But some of us now have the joyous tradition of going to church on Christmas Day.

I was just remarking to my husband that I could even stop including the bread in my baking projects…but it’s not difficult to make, so I don’t know why I even consider that. I guess because it’s more fun to try new things.

When I searched online for this recipe, I found something a bit different from Sunset under the name Western Dried Fruits Cake. It contains raisins, which I think too common for the occasion, and judging from the only picture I saw, and the recipe ingredients, mine is much better all around.

One of my friends makes this bread; she has eaten mine and told me hers is the same, and she calls it California Fruitcake. When I search with that term I come up with something much more like our favorite, also with credit given to Sunset: California Fruitcake.

The last two years I have decreased the amount of my recipe, for some reason to one-third of the quadruple-batch, but for your convenience I will post here something close to the original version. And how about a Christmasy name as well:

California Nativity Cake

2 cups flour (I’ve used part whole-wheat)
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups lightly packed dried fruit. I like to use half dried apples, and the remainder dried apricots and dates, sometimes with some pears or figs in the mix. Cut the larger pieces of fruit into 1″ pieces.
3 cups whole nuts. Usually our cake is heavy on the almonds, lately with some pecans as well.
5 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup water

Prepare six mini loaf pans or fewer larger pans by greasing and lining with waxed paper or parchment paper. Stir the dry ingredients together and mix about 1/2 cup of this mixture with the fruit and nuts. While mixing I make sure to stuff an almond into each date. Stir the eggs, vanilla, and water together and blend with the flour mixture, then add the fruit and nuts.

Spoon into the prepared pans, and if you want to minimize the rockiness of the terrain of the finished loaves’ tops, use your spoon to push pointy edges of apple down into the sticky dough. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 75 minutes depending on the size of pan, or until well browned. I usually have to put some foil over the top of large loaves after an hour.

Let cool on a rack for about 10 minutes before turning out on to racks. Pull off the paper and let cool thoroughly. Wrap loaves airtight and refrigerate or freeze for at least a few days before serving. Aged loaves can be cut in thin slices.

our youngest celebrating at Grandma’s house 20 years ago


6 thoughts on “Nativity Cake

  1. Your cake looks tasty, GJ. I might even like that Jesus birthday cake! When I tried to make fruitcake last year, it was awful. I don't even like the fruit/nut combo the recipe called for. We had a birthday cake for Jesus, too. You and I are SUCH the same vintage. Sending love your way . . .


  2. I grew up going to church on Christmas Day (and Christmas Eve) in a Protestant tradition. My mother tells me that as a child she went on Boxing Day (Dec 26), too. I don't know what significance that held.

    A birthday cake for Jesus was the custom as we raised our children, too. It's been left for the new little families to do on their own. Your California Nativity Cake looks wonderful.


  3. Oh I love this recipe. I will be making it as it has all of my favorite things and I love the part about making half with whole wheat. When I was making my Molasses cookies this week, I was wanting a recipe more like this. I love that you made this with your kids and something special at Christmas. I did the same thing and as neither my husband nor I had any Christmas traditions that honored the birth of Jesus it was all new and we had to make our own.

    I like seeing the pictures of your young family.

    Have a lovely weekend.


  4. What a beautiful idea for this cake! I have always loved going to church on Christmas day and I haven't been able to for the last 4 years because of where I have been at Christmas and not being able to drive, though I have been to the Christmas eve services every year. I was really pleased last year to be able to take my Dad, then-boyfriend and my half sister (who has never been taken to church) with me.

    Thank you for your comments on my blog. I hope I didn't offend you with the post at all. For the record, I have never considered anyone's Christmas jumper ugly or judged it in that way consciously, but I can see how it could happen and that would be terrible! I guess it's one of those secular things that has occured.


  5. What an excellent tradition for your family, GJ. I do wish we had a Christmas Day (or even Eve) service, or just an open sanctuary and music, and prayer, with candles in the windows. It would go far, among Christians, if we observed such a thing, to keep our eyes on the real significance of this day.


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