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Life as Performance Art

Some eighty years plus ago, when money was tight during the Great Depression,  a couple of women at my church made several batches of fruitcake to sell at their Christmas bazaar.  They were in one-pound blocks, wrapped and decorated. It turned out to be a big hit.  In fact, it was so big that the next year they made an even large batch, again in one-pound blocks.  Soon after, the women decided to forget the rest of the bake sale and bazaar to focus solely on the fruitcake. Three quarters of a century later, when they decided to bring the project to an end, they were making two and a half tons of the stuff each year.
What made it successful was not just the taste, but the mystique that surrounded it. To begin with, the recipe was promoted as Top Secret.  Only the president of the Fruitcake Maker’s Guild knew the recipe. Just in case she might choke on a maraschino cherry before the next year, a copy was kept locked in the church safe in the rector’s office.  When she retired, Madame President handed off the recipe to her successor.
The other part of the mystique was that if little Joanie joined her mother in the guild, and was so young she had to stand on a chair to sift flower, decades later the elderly Joanie was still sifting flour.   There were card tables for the convenience of some of “the older girls,” as they called themselves, who were in wheelchairs, but still an active part of the guild.  A member began with one job or step in the process and held it for life. There was no cross training because someone might learn all the secrets, then divulge them to others.  In time, it became a matter of pride to tell others how many decades and years they had weighed ingredients or done their one and only task.
In fact, the only ingredient they all knew was the brandy they poured over the batter just before baking. It was inexpensive but potent.  The only reason they all knew it was because one by one, they would quietly excuse themselves to “go down the hall,” as they would discreetly say, and make a quick  detour into the Pouring Room for a quick bump or two.  Some of them seem to have needed to go more often than others.
The secrecy of this Christmas tradition was the hook in their sales pitch, and it worked. A newspaper article explained that they had found an ancient recipe from an unnamed medieval Anglican parish in southern England. People could not get enough of the stuff. Every year they ran out; the next year they made even more and still ran out.
Some people have wine cellars; we have eight remaining blocks in our freezer. The stuff keeps forever, you know.
Sadly, seventy-five years later they brought it to an end. It was too hard to get enough members to commit to weeks of making fruitcake. Three quarters of a century is a long run. What makes the work of the guild even more meaningful is that for about the first fifty years women were not ordained, nor even allowed to be a member of the Vestry (the parish board) in the Episcopal Church. In short, the women did all the work and raised the money but did not get to decide how it would be used.  Those restrictions ended in the 1970s.
Of course, our parish was not the only church holding these holiday bazaars.  It was a tradition among most churches. Even the rural Lutheran churches known for their lutefisk dinners only a month earlier could not resist the fun of hosting a holiday sale.  In a tradition that dates back to the founding of our country, women usually took the lead in much of the church fund-raising.  They still do. For many of them, it is a source of quiet pride.
Unfortunately, there are fewer holiday bazaars and bake sales each year. The main reason seems to be identical to what brought about the end of the Fruitcake Makers Guild. It is too difficult to find that critical mass of people willing to donate their time and energy.  Some potential volunteers say they would rather contribute money rather than work on a sale. Those who do carry on the tradition often say that it is the same group that does it each year, without any new volunteers coming forward.
A year or so before she died, I had a chance to talk with my high school humanities teacher and member of their Guild.  Mrs. Van Zant had come to the States as a British war bride in 1946, joined the parish, and made her first American friends in the church kitchen. She told me at length about how they cared for each other, shared stories and sometimes confidences. She also said that after several of the ladies had taken several treks down the hall they were less inhibited.  “I taught them some of the war songs, what we called the Hits of the Blitz, and we would have a singsong.  A trip or two down the hall myself, and I taught them the dirty lyrics. Oh, you should have seen the vicar’s face when he heard us!”
And there you have it. In the early years, raising money for church expenses was very important for two reasons.  The first was raising money, but in many ways, it was the justification for something more important.   In rural communities, especially where women lived on more widely scattered farms, their groups at their church and the importance of what was once called, “Women’s Church Work” was emotionally important. It still is on so many levels. Often, the best conversations occur where there are busy hands.  It was a place to talk and share confidences and gossip, to console one another, to support and encourage each other. 
This season, if you go to a church or other organization’s bazaar and bake sale, take a look at the smiles and welcome you receive just for walking through the door.  It doesn’t matter how much or how little you spend; the fact that you went out of your way to be there is important.  It lets the members know that all of their work has meaning.
The other side of it is that we live in an increasingly isolated world.  The internet and social media, followed by the Great Shut Down during the pandemic, made it difficult for people to connect face to face. I don’t think most of us realized the dreadful impact it had on all of us. 
Do you remember how children would say that they missed being in school because that was where they could spend time with their friends?   The same is just as true, and just as important, for those of us who are older.
Go have some fun, see some people, spend a little money on some tasty treats, and enjoy yourself. It will put a smile on your face. It will give you something new to talk about. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

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