My Great-Grandmother's Special Birthday Cake For Christmas
In my favorite baby picture of myself, I am in the arms of my great-grandmother. When my parents brought me home from the hospital, they took me to her house in Nashville. So many precious memories are there, but the ones of Alberta Bontemps' Christmases are still best and brightest in my mind. I look back and see myself in her home, in a holly berry dress and red coat, or eating her homemade cakes.
Courtesy of Caroline Randall Williams
Christmas is a time for food and songs, gifts and gift giving. A time for adult sacrifice and childhood dream making. The holiday is also, according to my great-grandmother, a birthday party. "We're celebrating Jesus being born," she would remind us. She was right. And so, in addition to every other perfectly composed dish, there would be a centerpiece cake in honor of the birthday boy that was made with all her love and all her impressive skill.
So it should come as no surprise that my mother called our resident holiday cake baker when, at 14 years old, I unexpectedly (and inconveniently) volunteered myself to make dessert for my youth group's Christmas potluck.
I don't know why we didn't just pick up something from the local bakery or market, seeing as I'd given the adults in charge of me such short notice. Whatever the case, I found myself back in my first home with Alberta Bontemps, baking our first cake together in December of 2001.
She was dependent on a walker by then but still all the way there. She pushed her way into the kitchen (I went ahead of her, at her bidding) and sat down on the walker's gray seat. Then, like the virtuoso conductor I'd always heard she was, she directed me through her kitchen. She wrought a symphony without playing a single note herself. It was as if I had dissolved and was simply an extension of her—her hands, her eyes, her legs.
As I get older, my kitchen becomes more and more tidy. I think I can trace this impulse directly back to baking that Christmas fruitcake with my great-grandmother.
"The second left jar. One handful," she'd say. "The third shelf of the cabinet on the right. Open that bag, and get a half a cup of walnuts." She knew exactly where everything was. She could tell me precisely how to get the ingredients and measurements right without lifting a finger. Her iron fist in its velvet glove, wielding her great-granddaughter like the happiest, most willing kitchen instrument ever to grace her polished countertops.
Now, I'm not a serious fruitcake eater, but I don't think the type of cake was really the point. Whether it was layered chocolate or pound cake or angel food, it was the spirit in which it was made that I carry with me— Alberta's particular brand of holiday feeling.
I never had the opportunity to discuss faith with her before she passed away. But it seems to me that Grandma's "birthday cake for baby Jesus" was about underscoring the sweet humanity of faith. Jesus was someone's child, someone wholly human and uniquely precious to his particular parents just for being newly alive and in his mother's warm arms.
The bigger picture of Christmas—what the holiday means spiritually—is for all of us who claim the holiday's faith. The familiar gestures, ornaments, dishes, and rituals are all reminders of the gift of grace that the Son of God brought to the world. But the birthday cake, that was for Mary's little boy, a living, breathing infant in his mother's arms. It was and is an acknowledgement of the immediate humanity of that moment.
When Grandma baked a birthday cake at Christmas, she was reminding us of the miracle that being human can bring in the moment of the holiday and in every moment before and after too.
Caroline Randall Williams is a writer, poet, and author of Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family. She was born in Nashville.