One of my favourite edible Christmas gifts this year was a simple box of German Lebkuchen. This is the good stuff from Nürnberg, the historical home of these popular Christmas biscuits. As you may know, the medieval season of Christmas extends to Candlemas so I’ve been happily munching my way through them this Epiphany…
My friend Nicki who gifted them to me also sent me an article explaining that it was Bavarian monks who first created these biscuits in the fourteenth century using special wafers called oblaten as a base to build them on. It was an epiphany to her and to me to find out that this was essentially the same wafer used for Communion. Here’s a close-up viewed from the upper and lower sides so you can see it clearly:
It felt a little odd at first, but perhaps the idea that the same wafers used for the blessed sacrament should also be eaten in a mood of festive recreation is not so very strange when you remember the word holiday derives from holy day and connects back to older ideas about the observance of sacred leisure. These ‘traditionally built’ Lebkuchen are a surprisingly light bite given their size, not heavy in their texture but not insubstantial either, combining the Christmassy flavours of chocolate, ginger and citrus peel.
The unusual choice of the oblaten as the foundation for these biscuits got me thinking about foundations in general, which seems a good subject to consider at the beginning of the (modern) year. Unless the Lord builds the house the labourers work in vain, wrote Israel’s King Solomon, famous throughout the ancient world for his wisdom. This week I’ve been reading about the beginning of his reign again, of his magnificent building projects and scholarly works, and the discerning heart that God granted him to govern his people. By wisdom a house is built and by understanding is it established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with every precious and beautiful treasure is one of his many recorded sayings, a beautiful image that encourages me to think about how I want to fill all the ‘rooms’ of the year ahead…
As Solomon suggests the way we order our lives – what we prioritise and choose to focus on – will determine what we are able to build on and in them. Sometimes the first step to doing this may in fact be digging deeper and even dismantling to support a better structure over time. In a similar way in the gospels Jesus compares the person who hears his words and put them into practice to a wise man who builds his house upon a rock: floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall (Matt. 7). Perhaps the monks of Nuremberg saw an aptness in using the wafers used for the body of Christ as the foundation for their biscuits, much as Christ was held by the Church to be the foundation of God’s household, its cornerstone.
Always we begin again, St. Benedict tells us – author of the Rule that became a foundation text of the monastic culture that so profoundly shaped medieval Europe and generated extraordinary achievements in scholarship and creativity, not forgetting the Lebkuchen. Each year – each morning – can be an exercise in beginning, and if we aren’t quite sure how or what to start it can be helpful to examine our foundations.
More about the history of Lebkuchen from The Daring Gourmet. (If you’re in the UK and would prefer to buy than make your own, you can get authentic Bavarian brands at a decent price from Lidl.)
Want a little taste of Christmas in Germany? More on how and where to visit Christmas markets in Bavaria.
From oblaten to oblates… As I write this, a kind Catholic friend at the London Library has just appeared with a copy of Esther de Waal’s book on The Way of St Benedict for me. Not a bad read to begin the new year.
Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, a beautiful fifteenth-century German carol preserved in a monastery in Trier, set in this form by Michael Praetorius and performed by Solomon’s Knot:
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