December 18

Christmas Baking

Baking has become an essential part of the celebration of Christmas for a number of reasons. Historically it relates to the midwinter veneration of grain and grain products in hopes that the next year’s harvest will be bountiful. We can see this in the eastern European custom of placing wheat and hay about the house, even under the table-cloth, on Christmas Eve and in the widespread practice of preparing a grain porridge, such as kutya or frumenty, at Christmastime. This notion carries over to baked goods, especially bread. In the nineteenth century German peasants believed there was particular power in bread baked at Christmas: thrown into a fire, it would quench the flames; given to cattle, it would keep them healthy. Similar beliefs attached to the oplatek wafer in Slavic Europe and Christmas cake in Flanders. As a result special breads and other baked goods became identified with Christmas in many countries: the German Christstollen which was said to represent the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus; the Greek christopsomo which is often decorated with a cross; the medieval English mince pies which were made in the shape of a crib and adorned with a dough figure of the Holy Child; the Belgian cougnou or pain de Jesus in the shape of the baby Jesus; the Ukrainian kolach, which is sometimes stacked in threes as a reminder of the Trinity. Many cakes are baked in the shape of wreaths and circles to symbolize everlasting life.

 Christmas-tide is a feast and a feast means food and abundance. Christmas baking is therefore an expression of indulgence and the celebration of a full pantry after a year’s hard work. This is a time when the richest ingredients and most costly spices can be employed with a guilt-free conscience: the effort and expense lavished on Christmas baking is unmatched by food preparation at any other time of year. The weeks of Advent are scarcely time enough for the marshalling of resources — flour, fruit, nuts, butter, cream, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, etc., etc. — and the preparation of the cakes, cookies, breads and pies that are consumed in such quantities. It is little wonder than an Irish term for Christmas Eve is Oidhche na ceapairi, “Night of Cakes.” In Norway no less than seven kinds of cookies must be prepared.

Baking at Christmas is also a community activity. Most families will prepare at least some goodies together, as in the custom of the Stir-Up Sunday pudding, and on many occasions members of a whole village, church or other group will be involved. Eating Christmas baking is, of course, a communal activity as well, binding the family together in present enjoyment and often linking them to those who are dead or absent. The oplatek wafers of Poland are shared ritually with those around the table but some are reserved for those away from the home; in many countries families leave bread out for the spirits of those departed or for the Holy Family. Sharing with those less fortunate is often part of the Christmas tradition: either by setting a place for the unexpected visitor or by giving baked goods away — the “soul cakes” of England and the French pain calendeau are examples of charity foods.

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