Gingerbread Stars

It’s a bit of a tradition for me now to make Gingerbread Stars for Christmas. It’s an inexpensive, easy homemade gift for the holiday season and much appreciated by the recipients. The recipe is my Mother’s and produces more than enough to give to different sets of friends, a tin or two for the workplace and leftovers for house guests. My only addition to the recipe is a little freshly grated ginger as well as the dry ground but it can be made just as well without.

IMG_3139 2Each year I’ve meant to write about the great gingerbread making and each year time has overtaken me. And so each year I’ve taken photos with great optimism — these, from 2016, interposed in my phone’s camera reel with a trip to see the RSC’s King Lear at the Barbican — all ready for a bestiary entry which never gets done…

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This year of course will be different. Instead of a busy, relatively carefree Christmas in company with much of the UK I’ll be having a careful, relative-free one. I know this whole year has been an exercise in letting things go, and I count myself lucky I have a Christmas bubble (bauble?) with nice people in it and that my losses have been extremely mild compared to those of many others, but I did have a little cry on Sunday adjusting to the fact I definitely wouldn’t be travelling up North. It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? And while there will be many challenges to navigate in the new one so many of us wanted to be able to take a break from it all for a few days and escape into something a bit more like the Christmases of the past.

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Gingerbread itself offers a tangible link to Christmases much longer ago. It’s been a treat in Europe since at least the eleventh century, when it was given as a gift by monastic houses or baked as a delicacy in royal kitchens or (later) sold at Gingerbread Fairs. The taste of ginger — like the cinnamon and nutmeg which can also be added — helps convey something of the flavour of those older Christmases. Early modern recipes tend to be lighter and sweeter, but eating and exchanging gingerbread is still a Christmas tradition and still permissible in the time of Covid — a way in which we touch hands, however lightly, with that medieval world.

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If the gingerbread-making evokes the warmth of past Christmases, the stars make me think of the hope of the Christmas story too — one accessible not just to the rich and mighty, but the poor and powerless. Especially for them in fact as we learn in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder at God’s mercy. And in the midst of everything else that’s going on — or not going on — right now, is one astronomical event that will make this particular Christmas memorable for another reason: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of Monday the 21st of December will be a bright spot on the horizon if the weather is good enough for us to view it and you can find more details on what and how to look for here. It’s the first time a planetary ‘star’ this spectacular has occurred for hundreds of years, which naturally brings to mind the story of the wise men (in Latin, magi) journeying to Bethlehem because of the unusual star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, which modern astronomers think likely to have been a conjunction or near conjunction of planets between 7 and 2 BC. Fittingly enough, its appearance this year coincides with both the Winter Solstice and the day appointed for the Antiphon, O Oriens (O Light), echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a saviour appearing like a star

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death

As the Clerk of Oxford reminds us, these Advent Antiphons are traditionally sung at Vespers “in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, [as] ancient songs of longing and desire in the darkest time of the year” and in Christ we have a saviour who entered the world just when he was most longed for and needed, and who in the end provides a deeper comfort and more lasting hope than any breakthrough vaccines or changes of politics.

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These songs of hope and longing have a special resonance for me this year. It’s easy to romanticise the medieval celebration of Christmas because of our distance from it, but like Zechariah before us, medieval revellers knew what it was to celebrate in darkness and the shadow of death — aware, as we too are more keenly aware, of the instability of life and its brevity and fragility. Many of our most hauntingly beautiful Carols have come to us from this medieval past as well, with their message of hope and joy even in times of great turmoil and sadness. One written in fifteenth-century England that I know is going to be ringing in my head this week is “This Endris Night I saw a sight, / A star as bright as day…” Thinking of all celebrating this year in less than ideal circumstances, and the hope that shines out brighter than a star in the darkness.

Further Delectation

Make your own gingerbread — so many recipes to choose from! – or explore this fascinating history of the gift-giving of gingerbread in monastic houses.

Listen to this evocative setting of This Endris Night by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a whole service of medieval carols at Great St Barts (the oldest church in London), or perhaps this lovely rendition of the Magnificat and Wexford Carol if you prefer something a little more early modern.

Feast your eyes on this beautiful fifteenth-century nativity detail from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (Walters MS W.174, fol. 17v) with the starlight lancing through the thatch of the stable roof as in so many medieval nativity scenes:

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Linecké Cukroví

In the Fourth Week of Advent my Czech friend gave to me… six beautiful handmade biscuits. At first glance they appear to be a daintier kind of Jammy Dodger – a delicate little jam and shortbread sandwich that would look quite at home in Alice’s Wonderland – but a little research reveals that they are in fact a special type of biscuit called Linecké Cukroví traditionally eaten in the Czech Republic at Christmas time. Katka assures me that the ones her mother makes are better, but I think these are perfect and very yummy indeed with a cup of coffee.

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The vivid colour and translucency of the jam reminded me of stained glass, and glass-making too belongs to a tradition of Czech craftsmanship dating back to at least the thirteenth century when it was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia.  It’s also the home of a medieval king long distinguished for his charity at Christmas: Good King Wenceslas, or Vaclav the Good as he is known in Central Europe. The English carol about him taking food to peasants is very new-fangled, but like Britain’s King Arthur it is said that if the Republic is ever in peril his statue in Wenceslaus Square will come to life and lead an army to victory with a legendary sword, bringing peace to the land.

With this in mind, it didn’t take me long to find a spiritual significance for the Linecké Cukroví. In one of the most famous passages of the New Testament St Paul talks about life in this world as an existence in which we only ever apprehend the real nature of things dimly, as if through a glass. ‘For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known…’ This note of longing to know more fully and see better than we do at present is also a guiding theme of the ‘O’ Antiphons which the Catholic and Anglican church pray during this last week of Advent. Today’s Antiphon ‘O Oriens’ speaks of the longing of those walking in darkness looking for the light to come, and tomorrow’s ‘O Rex Gentium’ of the longing for the coming of the king of all nations and the peace he brings: a good sentence for the closing of Advent and these lovely Christmas gifts.

Further Delectation

Take a virtual tour of the stained glass in St Vitus Cathedral, where Wenceslas I is buried.

Have a go at whipping up your own Feast of Stephen with this Linecke Cukrovi recipe or some more Christmas biscuit recipes from around the world.

Enjoy these Advent Antiphon poems by Malcolm Guite or listen to Will Todd’s The Call of Wisdom a particularly beautiful album for Advent recorded by Tenebrae choir.

Music-making was a large part of Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages. This beautiful Bohemian nativity scene is tucked away in a Cistercian book of liturgical music (image via Switzerland’s Central Library in Lucerne).

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Zuccherini al Caffe

IMG_5172These little ‘Zuccherini’ biscuits hail from Romagna and are another donation from my friend Olivia who went on holiday to Ravenna a few weeks back. The makers, Modigliantica, have a rather nice selection of biscuits in their product range, and – tidings of great joy for the lactose-intolerant – they all seem to be dairy-free. Like most Italian biscuits I’ve had the pleasure of sampling, these are drier than their British counterparts but sweet and subtly flavoured and an excellent accompaniment to your morning coffee. In fact these biscuits are partly made of coffee (the decorative ‘eye’ on top is a coffee bean and the specks in the mixture coffee grounds). Altogether a lovely little biscuit then.

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Octopus marginalia, 15th-c Italy

The name ‘Zuccherini’ suggests sugary treats rather than the usual Italian word ‘biscotti’. (Incidentally, a lot of coffee chains in Britain use the plural ‘biscotti’ as singular, causing amusement to Italian speakers across the board.) I particularly loved the fact that no two of the Zuccherini look exactly the same in the packet, some of their ‘arms’ are evenly shaped and some aren’t but together they fill the gaps on the plate ingeniously, as you can see in the photo above. The biscuits themselves look a little like starfish or even octopuses given their vaguely octangular structure. And this in turn reminded me of Ave, Maris Stella, the popular medieval invocation to Mary as the Star of the Sea: an invocation which feels touchingly poetic, even if it may originally have come about through scribal error.

Still a keystone of Catholic prayers today, the Hail Mary is the opening of the angel’s greeting to the mother of Jesus in Luke’s gospel so I think it appropriate to borrow those words as the moral sentence for this biscuit. In this lovely post on the medieval poetry and imagery of the Annunciation, one of today’s clerks of Oxford reminds us how such art ‘tends to emphasise the quiet, private, gentle nature of this encounter’ and that the stillness of such images is a good antidote to the noisy chatter of the internet. Mary’s trusting response also reminds me of the wisdom of Isaiah, who provides another whisper of Christmas in Advent’s Waiting Room: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’

Further Delectation

Reclaim a bit of calm in the Christmas rush with Monteverdi’s Ave Maris Stella, ideally with coffee and biscuits…

Feast your eyes on the vibrant stillness of one of Fra Angelico’s beautiful Annunciations:

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Fed up of all this Christmas nonsense? Find yourself a solid Parliamentarian paper for all the latest on England’s Civil War (warning: contains early modernism and politics.)

Increase your capacity for wonder by befriending an Octopus. If you would like to see more entries more regularly and help keep this bestiary free of ads, you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar