'Here come the saints: so near, so innocent,
They gravely cross the field of moonlit snow;
We villagers gape humbly at the show....'
From 'Here come the saints' by Thom Gunn (1929-2004)
In my ignorance I had always thought that the feast of St Nicholas was on Christmas Day, but actually it's today, which is the Feast of 'Christkindl', as it's known in Germany, or 'Sinterklass' as it's called in the Netherlands. Get it? Santa Claus - Kris Kringle...?
There's also a horrible creature around at this time of year, called the 'Krampus' who punishes the naughty children and ensures they don't get any presents. He's a sort of Christmas Devil and dressing up as a Krampus gives the young men who do, a chance to chase people - especially the prettiest girls...
Sinterklaas celebrations still take place in Holland and there is much dressing up as the Saint, Zwarte Piet and the Krampus. It's all a bit controversial these days and after I wrote this post there was a recent article in 'The Guardian' about it.(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/05/black-pete-race-netherlands)
This is the Jan Steen (1626-1679) painting of 'The Feast of St Nicholas' and I'm fascinated by what looks like the huge shield of bread on the right....
The folklorists get rather excited about all this because the Norse God, Odin, also a large man with a white beard similarly flew through the sky in winter, especially at Yuletide. Confused yet? You will be...
Anyway come the Reformation, all this saintly activity was rather frowned upon. So the new Protestants changed the giver of gifts from the now redundant St Nick, to the Christ child - the Christkindl (to mirror the gifts of the Magi), and the date of the giving from the saint's day on the 5/6 December to Christmas Day, some three weeks later.
Ah - but then....in the nineteenth century, Catholic tradition adopted the idea of the Christkindl, and at the same time the Protestants went down the more secular route of adopting 'Father Christmas' (especially in Britain) and a sort of secularised 'Santa' in the US. And... to dig even more into the past we now see a harking back to a pre-Christian winter holiday - as witnessed by the total absence of anything religious in the sanitised, guaranteed-not-to-offend-anyone-greeting, from the Coca Cola company - 'Happy Holidays'. Bah humbug.
So there you have it, a multi layered palimpsest of traditions; some religious, some artistic, some commercial, which have gone to make up the central figure of Christmas fun.
We're having an abundance of Christmas Markets down here, every artist locally seems to be trying to get their stuff out there, and my mantlepiece is crammed with invitations to private views and craft sales and lots of what's on sale is good; really, really good.
Christmas markets of course are a very old tradition especially in those countries with a Germanic heritage, and now we have them in Britain too. There's a really good one in Edinburgh and I went to the excellent one in Oxford last year. It's lovely to wrap your hands round a cup of mulled wine on a chilly evening, smell the spicy, sweet things on sale and view all the beautiful hand made crafts. The most recent trend in Penzance is to have these markets in private houses, send out invitations and hope that fuelled by mince pies and goodwill lots of people will buy...and they do. I'm going to one this coming Saturday.
So to celebrate St Nicholas, I've made lebkuchen...I'm rather addicted to the lebkuchen that our German supermarkets sell at this time of year, so I thought I'd try and make my own. They were OK, they looked nice as you can see, and they tasted great, but I slightly overcooked them, so they weren't squidgy enough inside. I think you want a slightly crisp outside and a softer middle, mine were a bit too cakey. But take care, there are loads of lebkuchen recipes out there and some are simply for a hard biscuit...not what you want here. Anyway here's the recipe I used. It's a BBC one.
250g plain flour
85g ground almonds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch each ground cloves , grated nutmeg and black pepper
200ml clear honey
1 finely grated zest of lemon
For the icing...100g icing sugar and a single beaten egg white
Tip the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Heat the honey and butter in a pan over a low heat until the butter melts, then pour into the flour mixture along with the lemon zest. Mix well until the dough is combined and fairly solid. Cover and leave to cool.
Using your hands, roll dough into about 30 balls, each 3cm wide, then flatten each one slightly into a disk. Divide the biscuits between two baking trays lined with baking parchment, leaving room for them to expand. Bake for 15 mins, then cool on a wire rack.
To ice the biscuits, mix together the icing sugar, egg white and 1-2 tbsp water to form a smooth, runny icing. Dip the top of each biscuit in the icing and spread with the back of a knife. Leave to dry out in a warm place.
If you come at these without preconceptions they are lovely, but they weren't what I was after, so the search continues....
'The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker's Green....'
From 'Christmas' by John Betjeman (1906-1984)