There isn’t a Graeter’s Ice Cream flavor for it yet- but there should be. Especially with as many Catholic schools and churches as there are in Cincinnati. If there was a flavor for First Communion Cake ice cream, it would be creamy and almondy, but simple. It wouldn’t have large chocolate chunks, but it might have a few white chocolate and gold jimmies to give it that ‘holy crunch’ and to symbolize the color of the chalice and the host. It would be a seasonal offering, but one that everyone looked forward to around Easter. And it would be served at the many thousands of family celebrations for First Communicants to go with their First Communion Cake.
These several weeks leading up to Easter are First Communion Season for Catholics. This preparation is evident in parts of the city that are largely and multi-generationally Catholic. For that matter, there are many Protestants and Orthodox who also prepare in their own unique ways for their First Communions. There’s a whole industry surrounding this one-time event. It’s nowhere near the size of the wedding industry, but it keeps bakeries and religious book stores busy for months.
My own nephew is currently ‘in-training’ for his First Communion. It’s a rigorous process for the Communicant. Over many weeks, they learn catechism, symbols of the Church, and other physical aspects of the Catholic Mass. Catholic parents, meanwhile are busy buying outfits for their kids, and planning the big post-First Communion feast, ordering that delicious ending to the feast, the First Communion cake.
For a young Catholic, making your First Communion is an important part of becoming an adult in the Church. Eligibility for the sacrament begins in second grade, and it allows young 7 year old boys and girls their first chance to be a part of the Mass, by receiving what is called the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus. It’s one of the three sacraments of Initiation in the Catholic Church, in addition to Baptism, and Confirmation. For Catholics, First Communion is the most important and most intimate sacrament. The First Communion cake is the sweet end to the day that marks this entrance into the Church.
In preparation for the feast, mothers set up photo shoots of their kids sporting their First Communion wear. They’re posed like cherubs, holding rosaries and prayer books (called missalettes), their hands folded in meditation looking skyward. These photos evoke images of the famous cherubs at the bottom of the 1512 painting, The Sistine Madonna by Italian master, Raphael (Sanzio). They’re typically given out to relatives at the feast as sort of a collector’s card. Having been raised Catholic, I have nearly a full deck of friends and relatives’ First Communion photos.
Girls wear elaborate dresses with veils, looking like little brides, and boys get decked out in suits and ties, sometimes white, to symbolize purity. Some parents even go old-school, having the boys wear embroidered arm bands on the left arm and white gloves.
I didn’t wear an arm band at my First Communion in the 70s, and it’s now sort of a lost tradition. The custom goes back over 100 years. It was something brought over to the U.S. by immigrants from the Catholic regions of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. It’s now usually only practiced in very ethnic Catholic neighborhoods, like the Little Italy neighborhoods of Chicago or Philadelphia. Sometimes the communicant wears the old arm band of a parent, grandparent, or other older relative. The arm band is a symbol of purity, like the girl’s veil. It symbolizes the state of sanctifying grace that you are supposed to keep your whole life. Usually made of white satin, they’re embroidered with the chalice and host.
Prior to 1910, Catholics made their First Communion at a later age of 12 to 14 years. Today, the age of discretion, or eligibility, begins at age 7. This policy was enacted by Pope St. Pius X on August 8, 1910, in his Decree Quam Singulari (Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments). My paternal grandmother told me as an 8 year old at that time, she was made eligible earlier than her older sisters had been. This brought her great bragging rights.
My maternal great grandfather, made his First Communion in 1894, prior to the papal decree, not being eligible earlier like my grandmother. He made his First Communion at the very German Catholic – Corpus Christi Church in Newport, Kentucky, which is now a home for older adults. In a very formal photo, he is seen wearing white gloves and the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Conception, another common adornment around that time at First Communion. The Miraculous Medal was created as a result of the Marian visions of St. Catherine Labour in Paris, France in the 1830s. Introduction into this society was common for children around their First Communion. This Miraculous Medal image of Mary is the one that you see in the concrete statues in front yards – standing on a half globe, her gaze downward to earth, and her arms outstretched to her sides. On the rustic table next to him in the photo is his baptismal candle in a bouquet. It was common in group First Communions for the communicants to carry floral bouquets with their baptismal candles in procession at the beginning of the Mass. He was baptized at another very German Catholic Church on the Ohio side of the River, Marias Hilfe (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) in Sedamsville, in 1884, when the church had just been completed, his parents and older sisters recent immigrants from Polish Prussia. Although he’s not wearing an arm band, there is a white silk cloth stuffed into his lapel pocket that might be the band.
To receive communion, Catholics must abstain from food and drink, except water, for one hour before receiving. An obligatory overnight fast was relaxed in the late 20th century by Vatican II, held in 1968. This Second Vatican Council totally changed the Mass and many other century old Catholic traditions. The Mass was allowed to be said in the language of the people rather than Latin, and lay people were now being allowed to participate in a more intimate way than ever before. The tradition of taking the host on the tongue, was also relaxed with Vatican II, although some still receive the Eucharist on their tongue, rather than in their palms.
Both of my parents went to Catholic school and attended daily mass before classes started. So, in accordance with this Eucharistic abstaining overnight, they couldn’t eat breakfast until after mass. At that point they were typically starving, and had a half hour to run to the local bakery or five-and-dime to get a candy bar or donut for breakfast and run back for classes.
The drinking of the wine or Pretiosissimi Sanguinis (Precious Blood) is not a requirement to partake in the Eucharist. If someone is not able to drink wine but want to receive the Precious Blood, they can request something called ‘mustum’, defined in a guiding letter of 2003 to priests by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI). The letter defines ‘mustum’ as grape juice where fermentation has begun, but stopped before alcohol content reaches 1 %.
Also defined in Rathsinger’s letter is the makeup of the Eucharistic wafer. It must consist of only two ingredients – wheat and water – and must be unleavened. It’s actually very similar to a matzoh cracker in that sense, but it’s very light and almost melts in the mouth, creating a paste that is best washed down by the Eucharistic wine. Unfortunately for celiac Catholics there’s not a gluten free option. But here’s the saving grace, pardon the pun. Catholics believe in a process called transubstantiation. It’s a ritual performed by the priest in the part of the mass called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. During it the priest sort of channels Jesus to turn the host and the wine into His true Body and Blood. So, by the time you receive Communion, the host is actually the gluten-free flesh of Jesus, and the wine is the alcohol free Precious Blood!
Now we get back to the post-sacrament party. In scanning these celebratory dinners and brunches, there seems to be no common dish or custom related to the meal itself. In a lot of cases they First Communion Feast happens on or around Easter, so traditional family Easter dishes might be served. But there’s always a First Communion cake that accompanies the dinner. I don’t remember what we had at my First Communion brunch, but I do remember my First Communion cake.
I was lucky that my Godparents, my maternal aunt and uncle, owned a bakery and made my First Communion cake. I knew that they’d be bringing a bakery fresh – full sized sheet pan cake to my brunch. It was a dense moist white cake with an almondy flavor. The white butter cream icing was also dense and sweet. It was not the lower-grade whipped kind you might find on a grocery store cake. It had a golden iced chalice and host and a wreath of golden and blue flowers hovering over.
I was very much into the pomp and circumstance and ritual of the Church back then. I felt connected. The ritual and traditions gave me perspective of who I was and where my family fit into it all. Heck, Cincinnati Catholics were responsible for the birth of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, that my family usually ate on Fridays during Lent. I had celebrated my 7th birthday party that year at the McDonald’s in Fairfield with five of my besties, and if McDonald’s could buy into Catholic culture, I could too. The First Communion cake was a culmination of this Catholic pop-culture, and a connection back in my family history.
The First Communion cake used to be a plain white-iced sheet cake, with simple decoration or a personalized congratulation. This was supposed to symbolize the innocence and purity of the young communicants. The cakes were simple and good, not showy or ostentatious. There’s something very appropriate and spiritual about a simple white iced sheet cake.
Simplicity aside, the First Communion cake was more important than a birthday cake, because you only received one such cake your entire life. And, they were usually a lot bigger than the typical birthday cake. If you’re from a big Catholic family, they had to feed a hungry army of relatives at the post-sacramental family feast. The cake was the culmination of all your training – the memorization of strange catechism you’d forget later in life. It symbolized the spiritualism of accepting the mystery of the Resurrection.
For décor, the First Communion cake might have a golden iced chalice with the Eucharist on top. It also might include an iced cornucopia of bread and grapes, the makeup of the wine and host. It also may have an iced version of one of the common gifts you receive on the day, like a rosary, bible, prayer book, or crucifix. If your parents were more hippy, there might even be more esoteric symbols iced on a First Communion Cake like a caterpillar and butterfly, or a hatching egg, or another symbol of the Resurrection.
It was still very early post-Vatican II, and the sky was the limit for open-mindedness, at least for a while. It was the days of the Theory of Liberation, which brought down the Communist Iron Curtain. It was the days of liturgical dance & homily mini-dramas, outdoor masses, and small in-home masses. The Catholic 70s were free and open, at least in our country parish. And for my small, but burgeoning liberal mind, it was great.
There might even be a cake topper with a boy or girl kneeling at the altar in front of a priest or Jesus as the Sacred Heart, offering the Eucharist. My first communion cake topper was a leftover from my grandpa’s bakery and was a 1950s bisque version made in Japan. The First Communion cake topper, like the arm band, is also sort of a lost tradition. The vintage First Communion cake toppers are now very collectible on ebay.
Today, with the explosion of specialized cakes the simple white iced First Communion cake has morphed into more elaborate versions. Some have several tiers like a wedding cake, coming in a variety of colors and designs. Other families serve cupcakes or iced cookies instead of cake, or even have a dessert bar instead. But to me, the plain white iced version is more spiritually appropriate and will never go out of style. Graeters, in their current promotion of a new ice cream flavor, should for sure consider an almondy First Communion cake version.