The wedding cake is a beautiful centrepiece in most weddings, but for many couples it’s much more than that. There’s a time-honoured tradition that involves carefully saving the top layer to share after the first stage of married life is over, during the firstborn’s christening or on the first year anniversary.
Where did this custom come from?
To understand that, let’s look first at where wedding cakes come from. That deliciously sweet, beautifully white tower presiding over your wedding table had its origin in a much humbler food: simple breads made of wheat, water, and salt and served at Roman weddings. The common factor between our cakes today and Roman wedding breads is in the chief ingredient: wheat. Wheat is an ancient symbol of fertility and the wedding bread was considered to carry the blessing both of a fertile womb and fertile fields.
In England, the wedding cake also began with simple food. The centrepiece for the wedding was a huge stack of rolls or sweetbread piled high. The bride and groom would be stood up with the stack of rolls between them and attempt to kiss over the bread. If they succeeded without any disaster to the tower, they were promised a happy marriage and many children.
Children were very important to our forefathers and mothers; they were seen as a blessing and as a direct result of a happy marriage.
“…an ancient symbol of fertility…”
Over the years, the stack of rolls morphed into a special wedding cake, often made of rich fruit-bread as fruit was also considered a symbol of fertility. Wedding fruitcakes were originally simple one layer affairs, and may not have been frosted. Sugar was expensive, and having a cake at all was a great luxury.
Wedding cake saved past the date was considered a magical thing. To a guest, a piece of wedding cake was considered to bring abundance and joyful marriage, and a small morsel was often put under the pillow of a young, unmarried person to enable him or her to dream of ‘the One’ . When saved by the bride, a slice of wedding cake became a talisman of good luck to the newly wedded pair, (a well-preserved piece – no crumbling!), being considered by some as a symbol of the husband’s fidelity.
In the eighteenth century the trade routes widened, sugar became more available, and cakes became bigger. Two special cakes figured in old time cookbooks: the wedding cake and the christening cake. During the nineteenth century both of these cakes became more and more elaborate.
“…a small morsel was often put under the pillow of a young, unmarried person…”
When Queen Victoria had a tiered cake for her wedding in 1840, many regular people wanted one too – but how to justify the expense? One way was to spread the expense out between the two major celebrations. With a three-tiered cake, one could use the bottom layer to serve guests at the wedding reception, the second layer to give away, and the top layer could be saved and served at the first baby’s christening. It gave many an economical bride an excuse to justify a slight splurge for this special day.
It is here we find the origin of saving the top tier for a christening – a way of blessing the christening from the sanction of the wedding day, and of blessing the wedding with the miracle of the christening that is to come.
In recent years the average time between the wedding and the advent of a first baby has increased. As the concept of birth and the wedding becomes more separated, saving the top tier for a christening is becoming more impractical and, in many cases, it is instead saved as a special treat for the first anniversary. It’s the same tradition, but with a different twist.
Written by: Hannah Mosher
Edited by: Caitlin Mitchell