One of our members at Emmanuel in London, Lucie Brear, has compiled a fantastic collection of recipes and suggested Scripture readings for advent. If you want to discover a traditional English way to prepare for Christmas, then just read on! I’ll post them here one week at a time. Here’s the third:
A Reformed Christmas – The Butter Letters
Given that we have just celebrated its 500th anniversary, it’s festively fitting that we explore the impact of the Reformation on Christmas, along with a traditional Advent recipe that is closely linked to this period.
It may surprise some to learn that the Reformation had a profound influence on the way we celebrate Christmas, in more ways than we might expect. Read on to discover how Luther and the Reformers shaped the Christmas traditions that many of us hold dear.
Whilst the giving of gifts is now firmly embedded in our Christmas traditions, this was not always the case. In the sixteenth century it was common for children to receive presents on 6th December, usually small snacks such as apples or nuts. These presents were said to be brought by Saint Nicholas on his saint’s day – a figure that probably goes back to Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, known historically as a convivial churchman and friend to the poor.
Martin Luther loved Christmas and celebrated it with joy and gusto, although he was zealous about removing veneration of the saints from religious Christmas traditions. The cult of the saints was a thorn in the side of Martin Luther, and he felt no differently about Saint Nicholas. Luther felt that focusing on this saint as the giver of gifts took the focus off Jesus Christ, the true giver of all gifts. In a sermon on the feast of St. Nicholas in 1527, he called the legend a “childish thing”. But rather than banning gifts entirely (as some of his supporters later did), Luther took it upon himself to shift the focus to the Christkind (‘Christ Child’) as the giver of gifts. Luther considered the giving of gifts as an opportunity to educate children:
“Just as one teaches small children that the Christkind or St. Nicholas will bring them presents if they fast and pray and spread out their clothes at night. But if they don’t pray, give them nothing or give them a cane or horse droppings.”(!)
Although St. Nicholas’ Day is still observed by some Catholic families, Luther succeeded in almost entirely re-locating the tradition of gift-giving to the Advent period, upheld today in the familiar form of advent calendars and Christmas Day gifts. Father Christmas later became the secular counterpart to the Protestant Christkind.
Luther was born and raised in Germany, where Stollen is as synonymous with Christmas as gifts, trees, and hymns. For those not familiar with Stollen, it is a rich, sweet bread made with yeast and butter, containing dried fruit and often covered with icing sugar. Its name comes from the word Christstollen (after Christ) and its size and shape is meant to resemble a swaddled newborn. In order to offer guests and family members something special and unique to Christmas time, Stollen is traditionally made in thick layers interspersed with icing sugar and melted butter, with large amounts of expensive glacé (candied) fruit added to the batter.
However, Stollen was not always made to such an extravagant recipe. Before the Reformation, Advent was a time of strict fasting, when animal products, including milk, eggs, and butter, were forbidden by the Catholic church. Christmas baking was a rather sad affair of bland yeast breads made from salt, flour, and rapeseed oil. The result tasted so strange that the Saxonian prince Ernst feared the use of rapeseed oil might cause people physical damage! In the late fifteenth century, after a flurry of correspondence between the church and the Prince known as the “Butter Letters”, the Pope began accepting penalty payments, or ‘indulgences’, for the use of butter in religious baking.
As we know, ‘indulgences’ were one of Martin Luther’s many concerns in the 95 Theses. Unsurprisingly, his followers eschewed these papal regulations and began baking with butter with absolute abandon. Thankfully, to this day the practice of baking with butter remains firmly in place across a variety of popular baked goods. German food law actually regulates the amount of butter that must be used in Christmas stollen at a minimum of 3 kilos of butter per every 10 kilos of flour in a Christmas loaf. As one modern-day food historian puts it, “If you love your buttery holiday pastries, thank a Reformer!”.
Here is a recipe for traditional German Stollen from Dresden, an area particularly well-known for producing the highest-quality loaves.
- 2.5 cups/600 g raisins
- 4 tbsp rum
- 8 cups/1 kg flour
- 0.5 cup/125 ml milk
- 2 packages dry or 2 cubes fresh yeast
- 1 cup/200 g sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Grated rind of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
- 1 lb/453.6 g unsalted butter
- 3.5 oz/100 g almonds, ground or finely chopped
- 4 oz/113 g candied lemon peel, finely chopped
- 4 oz/113 g candied orange peel, finely chopped
- Unsalted butter for coating
- Icing sugar for dusting
- Soak raisins in rum overnight.
- Combine flour, milk, yeast, sugar, salt and butter to form a smooth yeast dough. Incorporate almonds, candied lemon and orange peel, mace and raisins, one after another, always kneading the dough thoroughly. Let rest for 1 hour. Knead the dough once more, divide into two and shape two Stollen loaves.
- Bake for about 1 hour in preheated oven at 350° F
- After baking the Stollen, brush with melted butter and dust generously with icing sugar.
Stollen has a long shelf life and can be made weeks ahead of Christmas.
Monday, December 18, Psalm 125; 1 Kings 18:1-18; Ephesians 6:10-17
Tuesday, December 19, Psalm 125; 2 Kings 2:9-22; Acts 3:17-4:4
Wednesday, December 20, Psalm 125; Malachi 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:9-13
Thursday, December 21 Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-4
Friday, December 22 Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:12-19; Hebrews 1:5-14
Saturday, December 23 Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Judges 13:2-24; John 7:40-52
Poem: Christmas (I)
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.