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A Recipe For a Joyous Christmas

The holiday season is well upon us, and the Christmas rush is in full swing. This special time of the year is typically filled with varying emotions for many of us, especially for those of us in the military community.

While the holidays are a joyous season, they can also bring the realities of military life into sharper focus.

Perhaps some reading this are preparing for a holiday season without their spouses, thanks to a deployment. Perhaps others are unable to travel back to their hometowns due to distance and schedules, meaning that the holidays will be celebrated without the fellowship of family and friends.

Military life teaches us that these harder seasons are just that – seasons that will pass, but yet there are many ways of finding joy even during difficult times. 

 

A Frontier Christmas 

 

Frances M. A. Roe, a nineteenth-century Army wife, found joy in her first Christmas with the military, despite missing her family and friends.

As I described last month, Frances was adjusting to her role as a military spouse when she experienced a frontier Thanksgiving in 1871.

One month later, she described her first frontier Christmas celebration in a letter to an unnamed recipient. 

Frances’s description of Christmas at Fort Lyon, Colorado, is detailed and amusing, while also providing some useful insights for finding joy despite difficulties.

As a new military spouse, Frances experienced the pangs of homesickness. Frances and her husband Faye had only lived at Fort Lyon for about two months by the time Christmas arrived, and Frances certainly missed the comforts of home (Roe, 4).

In her December, 1871, letter, she wrote of her disappointment when the promised Christmas box from her home failed to arrive in time (Roe, 14).

Despite her disappointment, however, she made the best of her circumstances by embracing the Army’s Christmas customs.

At Fort Lyon, Christmas was marked by several special events, including a remarkable feast of frontier delicacies for the enlisted men, a chapel service, a dance, and an elegant dinner for Frances, her husband, and several of their friends (Roe, 14-16).

Perhaps most importantly, however, Frances learned to find joy in Christmas, despite her homesickness, by bringing joy to others. 

 

The Demise of a Christmas Cake 

 

One of the ways that Frances brought joy to others was through baking, though this was not achieved without some misadventures.

According to Frances’s letter, the officers’ wives at Fort Lyon traditionally served Christmas cakes to the enlisted men (Roe, 14-15).

Frances decided that this presented an excellent opportunity to bring a little bit of her home to Fort Lyon.

As she wrote in her letter,

“At home we always had a large fruit cake made for the holidays, long in advance, and I thought I would have one this year as near like it as possible” (Roe, 14).

One month before Christmas, Frances began working on this fruit cake, an undertaking that took up two whole days and was “a fine test of perseverance and staying qualities” (Roe, 14).

christmasAt last, she completed the task, having made enough for not one, but two entire cakes. She baked them, wrapped them in paper soaked with brandy, and set them aside to rest until Christmas day (Roe, 14).

As a baker myself, I can only imagine Frances’s sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in having prepared a charming, delicious Christmas dessert so far in advance!

 

She was delighted by the thought that she had such “a nice cake to send them [the enlisted bachelors] Christmas morning” (Roe, 14).

 

Tragically and humorously, one of the two cakes met an untimely end. 

 

After Frances finished the cakes, she hung up her apron and made her way to choir practice. By the time practice was over, so was one of the cake’s short lives. Frances returned to find Faye visiting with a few other men who all “stood up and began to praise the cake” upon her return (Roe, 15).

Though she was confused at first, Frances quickly ascertained that the men had found and devoured one of the prized Christmas cakes!

She kept her own counsel until she entered the dining room and found not a Christmas cake, but just “the very small piece that had been so generously saved for me. And there were plates with crumbs, and napkins, that told the rest of the sad tale” (Roe, 15).

If I had been Frances, I probably would have cried with disappointment over the cake’s untimely end. But Frances kept her cool and “went back to the little living-room and forced myself to be halfway pleasant to the four men who were there, each one looking precisely like the cat after it had eaten the canary!” (Roe, 15). 

Thankfully, the second of the two Christmas cakes survived the men’s early festive snack attack, which was likely some consolation.

Additionally, Frances sent a cake to the enlisted men on Christmas morning, according to “the custom in the regiment for the wives of the officers every Christmas to send the enlisted men of their husbands’ companies large plum cakes, rich with fruit and sugar” (Roe, 15).

Frances also sang in the Christmas choir, which received praise, and enjoyed a Christmas dance given by Fort Lyon’s commander (Roe, 15-16).

Frances acknowledged that the dance was far simpler than one given in more populated places, but she thoroughly enjoyed dancing with the officers. As she wrote,

 

‘when you are gliding around…you feel as light as a feather, and imagine yourself with a fairy prince” (Roe, 16). 

 

A Joyful Christmas

 

Frances’s first Christmas an Army wife is an excellent example of how we too can find joy this holiday season, even if life might be difficult for ourselves and our families.

Whatever our circumstances might be this year, we can find joy by thinking of ways to serve others and bring happiness to them. Frances could have spent Christmas sorrowfully thinking of her family and friends back home, and missing the promised but delayed Christmas box.

Instead, she embraced the Christmas traditions at Fort Lyon. She shared her time and her own family traditions with her community by baking the Christmas cakes, even though the undertaking required a great deal of her time and energy.

She shared more of her time and energy by participating in the choir, which certainly cheered her community as they listened to beautiful Christmas music during the chapel service (Roe, 15).

By thinking of how she could serve the officers and enlisted men at Fort Lyon, Frances found joy in her first Christmas as an Army wife. We too can find joy by thinking of how we can serve our own families and communities! Perhaps this year might be a good time to try making our own cakes to share with those who might be lonely in our own communities.

But, hopefully, any baking you and I might do will survive better than Frances’s Christmas cake! 

 

Author’s Note: If you would like to make a Christmas cake, you might try this recipe from Martha Washington, who was herself an exemplary military spouse. Many thanks to Mount Vernon for sharing this recipe! Great Cake · George Washington’s Mount Vernon. 

 

Editor’s Note: The command team at Mission:Milspouse are so grateful for Anna’s committment to bring awareness to the strong spouses who blazed the trail for us. If you would like to read more of her work, please check out her  M:M Author Page.

 

 

Citations:

Roe, Frances M. A. Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888. Teddington, Middlesex, England: Echo Library, 2007.

“Great Cake.” Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.mountvernon.org/inn/recipes/article/great-cake/. 

Image Citations: 

Nast,Thomas. “Santa Claus’s Mail.” Harper’s Weekly. New York. December 30, 1871. https://archive.org/details/sim_harpers-weekly_1871-12-30_15_783/mode/1up.

Ehninger, John Whetten Ehninger, “The Christmas Tree.” Harper’s Bazaar. January 1, 1870. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1870_ChristmasTree_byEhninger_HarpersBazaar.jpeg.

“Traditional American Fruit Cake with Nuts.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fruitcake – /media/File:Traditional_fruitcake.jpg.

 

 

Author

  • Anna Fitzpatrick Layer

    Anna Fitzpatrick Layer is an Army wife, a mother of two young children, and a historian. Anna met the love of her life, Jacob, while studying history at Cedarville University. Life took her and Jacob in different directions after graduation, during which period Anna obtained an MA in History from Villanova University. During grad school, she and Jacob reconnected and began dating again – even though he was deployed to the Middle East at the time! She and Jacob married in 2016, at which point Anna joined Jacob at Fort Riley, Kansas. In addition to Fort Riley, they have been stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Fort Cavazos, Texas; Fort Meade, Maryland; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Anna truly loves the adventure of military life and the chance it provides to explore new places! She has found great joy in getting to know other military spouses and in forging friendships by sharing the blessings and trials of military life. In addition to being an Army wife, Anna worked as an online history teacher for several years before becoming a mother. Now, she and Jacob have a three year old little girl, a 6 month old baby boy, and a Golden Retriever who thinks she’s the firstborn child. Anna continues to pursue her passion for history by researching the American Revolution and the Civil War and by collecting (and trying to find the time to read) as many history books as her patient husband will happily move. Besides her love of history, Anna also enjoys playing the harp, baking way too many sweets, studying the Bible, cuddling her Golden Retriever, knitting, and most of all spending time with her family.

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