Christmas Cakes

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Christmas Cakes

Christmas Breads, Yule Bread, Yule Cakes

Bread is a staple food in European cuisine. Since medieval times European cooks have enriched this everyday food for the Christmas table. These early cooks began a tradition that continues to this day. People from many different nations still celebrate Christmas with a variety of rich breads and cakes.

European Christmas Breads and Cakes

The cuisine of medieval Europe did not feature a strong distinction between breads and cakes. For festive occasions bakers produced special breads we might consider akin to cake. As medieval cooks sharpened their understanding of various leavening agents, a distinction between bread and cake slowly began to emerge. Early Christmas cakes reflect this blurring of culinary categories. One early recipe for ginger cake mixed dry bread crumbs with spices and honey. The pasty dough resulting from this process was molded into various decorative shapes. Cakes featuring spices and honey were among the earliest European Christmas baked goods. Their descendants, often having evolved into cookies, populate contemporary Christmas celebrations. They include our own familiar gingerbread, northern Europe's peppernuts (Pfeffernüsse), Germany's Lebkuchen and Springerle, and Holland's speculaas. Cooks of past eras also enriched breads and cakes by adding extra fats, dried and candied fruits, and nuts. The traditional holiday fare of many European nations still include breads of this sort. Examples include Italian panet-tone, German Stollen, Swedish saffransbrod, Norwegian Julekake, and Greek Christopsomo.

Yule Doughs

In the Middle Ages people celebrated Christmas with Yule dows, or "Yule doughs." These pastries, shaped like animals or people, frequently the baby Jesus, constituted a special holiday treat. Nineteenth-century English and American bakers revived this old custom, calling their creations "Yule dollies." They often shaped them like young girls or dolls, and decorated them with icing, colored illustrations (glued onto the cookies with eggwhite), feathers, or other adornments. Typically, these decorated cookies served as ornaments for the newly popular Christmas tree. Today's Christmas bakers still shape and decorate gingerbread "men" in similar ways.

Scandinavian Cakes and Customs

A number of European Christmas customs grew up around the special cakes and breads of the season. A Swedish document dating from the middle of the sixteenth century notes that at Christmas time bakers concocted a special Christmas loaf about the length, width, and height of a five-year-old child. The writer continues by noting that people gave this kind of bread away to friends and even to strangers as an act of Christmas charity. The Scandinavians rolled other Christmas loaves, of smaller dimensions, into symbolic shapes such as a cross, a boar, or a goat (see also Boar's Head; Yule Goat; St. Lucy's Day). Certain superstitions attached themselves to these special Christmas loaves. According to one belief, a family should not finish their Christmas cake until Epiphany. Another decreed that the family guard the cake untouched until Candlemas. One Norwegian custom suggested that the Christmas loaves be prepared from grain gleaned from the straw left over in the fields after harvest.

Twelfth Night and Christmas Cakes

For many centuries the English, French, Dutch, and German peoples celebrated Twelfth Night by eating cakes. In France the custom can be traced as far back as the thirteenth century. The cakes provided more than a fitting end for a holiday meal, however. A bean, pea, or tiny china doll was baked inside the cake. The diner whose slice of cake contained the object was hailed as King of the Bean. This "king" ruled over the remainder of the feast. Sometimes the baker also dropped a pea inside the cake batter. The woman who found the pea in her slice of cake reigned as queen alongside the king. A French custom suggested that the hosts of the Twelfth Night feast reserve the first piece of the cake for God and the second for the Virgin Mary. These slices were offered to the first poor person who came to the house.

By the eighteenth century English bakers had elevated Twelfth Night cakes into virtual pieces of art. They molded these enormous cakes into a variety of elaborate shapes and covered them with fanciful decorations made out of icing. For example, a baker might construct a cake that resembled a fortress, complete with flying flags and posted sentinels. Some were so heavy, they required two men to carry them. Bakeries displayed these examples of the confectioner's art in shop windows.

The celebration of Twelfth Night declined in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result of fading interest in the holiday, the Twelfth Night cake was drawn into the orbit of the more powerful midwinter holiday, Christmas. During this transition the cake shrank in size. Oddly enough, the custom of secreting charms within the Twelfth Night cake transferred itself to another Christmas dessert, plum pudding. Thereafter, the Christmas cake functioned solely as a homemade dessert.

Greek New Year Bread

In Greece the custom of inserting a special charm into holiday bread or cake attached itself to New Year's Eve celebrations instead of to Christmas or Epiphany. In Greece a special cake or bread known as vasilopita, or St. Basil's bread, appears on the table on New Year's Eve. The bread and cake are named after St. Basil the Great (c. 329379), whose feast day Orthodox Christians observe on January 1. Housewives bake a coin into the vasilopita. Whoever finds the coin in their serving will attract good luck in the coming year. Some families observe a special ceremony when cutting and distributing the holiday bread. The head of the family blesses the bread and makes the sign of the cross over it. The bread is sliced and the first piece offered to Christ, the second to the Virgin Mary, the third to St. Basil, and the fourth to the poor. The next piece goes to the head of the family. The rest of the family receive their pieces according to age, the eldest first.

Further Reading

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1970. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Poole, Shona Crawford. The Christmas Cookbook. New York: Atheneum, 1979. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, Md.: Attica Press, 1993. Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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