I knew all about Christmas cookies. In my house growing up, we cut out cookies shaped like reindeer, Santa Claus, and then best of all, gingerbread men. These we festooned with raisin eyes and buttons, then used frosting to write our names on them. They hung from the Christmas tree until they were too hard to eat, at which point we promptly took them down and tried and often failed to eat them. Fun times.
These cookies were all well and good. It’s not that I didn’t like them – I did. I can easily conjure up the memory of scents wafting out of the warm oven and the zingy taste of gingerbread on my tongue. I remember the thrill of poking a hole in a gingerbread man’s – make that gingerbread person’s – head just big enough to thread a ribbon through but not so large that it broke through the cookie. This was the pinnacle of cookie baking, I was sure.
Then I came to Germany.
In my early years here, I taught English. When December rolled along, I did what all teachers do: I figured I’d blow off the last class before the holidays by getting everyone to bring in Christmas cookies – or Plätzchen – for a small celebration with my students.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was essentially like challenging Olympic athletes to a race when you just go for the occasional jog around the block when the weather is nice.
Baking Christmas cookies for German women is the equivalent of American dads putting up Christmas lights on the house. Only the biggest and brightest are acceptable, and if Mr. Next-Door Dad puts up a gigantic glowing reindeer, then by God, you as dad #1 better put up two of them. And a snowman.
With Christmas cookies in Germany, women, particularly older women, just don’t feel like it’s Christmas unless they’ve burned through several kilos of sugar over the course of December, covered their kitchen with a fine dusting of flour several times over and encrusted their fingernails with dough. Make that several different kinds of dough.
So for that momentous English class, my students brought in heaping plates of myriad cookies in all shapes and sizes. They then proceeded to describe where the recipes came from. It’s been many years now, but I distinctly recall one woman from Nuremberg telling me that this special cookie recipe from her hometown required you to hang the dough outside in a bag overnight. I’m not making this up. She claimed it made the dough lighter, but I think it was just to keep family members from nibbling on it when mom wasn’t looking.
Later on, I stopped teaching to start working in an office. It wasn’t just the job that got more interesting; the pre-Christmas cookie chats also increased in their sophistication:
“I baked four types of cookies over the weekend. Tonight, my kids and I are going to bake two more.”
“I started baking last weekend, too. So far, we’ve made eight kinds of cookies.”
Not to be topped, an eavesdropping third woman quickly counters:
“We made 10 kinds on the weekend. Next weekend, we’ll bake 10 more.”
I listen to this with a fake smile, nodding politely, wondering where they get the time to turn their kitchens into industrial bakeries.
What possesses women to do this, I cannot say. Apparently, the frenzied buying of Christmas presents that kicks off on Black Friday, a dubious tradition adopted from the U.S., is just not stressful enough. If you haven’t collapsed in agony onto the couch completely drained of energy with flour-filled hair and an aching back and feet by December 24th, it simply proves that you’re a bad mother and couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort required to stage a real Christmas for your family.
My husband’s aunt was an expert practitioner of this cookie creed. Born on December 6th, she always celebrated her birthday by inviting family over ostensibly for coffee and cake—but mostly for her Christmas cookies. By then, she had already been cranking them out for weeks, an effort that resulted in ca. 15 different kinds. We all went home with filled cookie tins and equally filled stomachs.
Lebkuchen, which translates literally as “life cakes,” are a special kind of Christmas cookie that begin as gooey blobs of dough baked on paper-thin wafers, coated with chocolate. The Lebkuchen’s main feature is the myriad spices it contains: cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and anis, in addition to optional candied lemon and orange peel.
It took me a few years to learn to like Lebkuchen, since I associated the candied lemon and orange with the inedible fruitcakes that my father somehow managed not only to eat but even seemed to enjoy. It didn’t help that some clever baker (probably the same one who invented Rainbow Wonder Bread) had added chopped green candied cherries to the fruitcake, fruit that more closely resembles the eyes of a monster in a horror movie. Steven Spielberg’s idea of a special holiday treat, I suppose.
Many Americans don’t care for Lebkuchen because they’re less sweet than typical American confectionary. But for Germans, they have been an integral element of Christmas since the Middle Ages. Because of the huge number of spices used to bake them, they were a treat that only the wealthy could afford. They were the Mercedes of the Middle Ages.
People probably stood right next to the window, Lebkuchen in hand, waiting for a hapless neighbor to walk by before leaning close to the window to take a demonstrative bite of the expensive delicacy, hoping the neighbor would notice and be suitably impressed.
“Hallo, Herr Hofmann, look at me! I can afford Lebkuchen and you can’t!”
My good friend Anke is from Dresden, famous for having invented the Stollen, a longish German cake with raisins or poppyseeds. I was thrilled to be invited to bake some with her at her house a few weeks ago. I was particularly impressed with her specially-made pan that she placed on top of the Stollen to keep it from burning. It had the perfect shape and large holes to allow steam to escape while still allowing it to finish baking.
This was intriguing. I was surely being initiated into a centuries-old Dresden tradition that only a native could convey. Her grandmother probably had pans like these, too, or perhaps these were her very pans?!
“Where did you get those?” I asked reverently.
“Amazon,” came the response.
So much for the ancient Dresden tradition.
I may not have been a shining example of cookie-baking prowess when my kids were little, but luckily, children aren’t solely dependent on their parents for cultural influences. My younger daughter has proudly taken on the mantle as the cookie baker of the family. We are planning on making five different kinds this Christmas. She will use the recipes her great-aunt gave her and I shall be her humble assistant, a position which, as anyone who has been the main cook of Christmas meals for many years will readily believe, I am more than happy to occupy.
We’ll still put sprinkles on some of them, though.