Christmas Desserts

As we come up to Christmas Day, let’s have a look at the history of several popular Christmas desserts.

Mince Pies

Dating from the Middle Ages this English dessert, like the name suggests, originally contained meat based mince. While meat disappeared from the pie in the 19th century (barring suet), the combination of ingredients in it today dates back from its origins which were inspired by Middle Eastern food that English soldiers experienced during the Crusades. It is not known exactly when they became associated with Christmas, but prior to the restoration of Charles II, their shape was oval and was thought to represent the manager; they also sometimes included a baby Jesus on top. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule mince pies were considered Catholic idolatry and were frowned upon. During the 19th century recipes for both meat based mincemeat and fruit based mincemeat existed but by the end of the century the sweet version, that is made today, dominated.

Yule Log

This popular cake is named and designed after the European Christmas tradition of the Yule Log – a log chosen specially to be burnt on a hearth on Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night. This tradition happened throughout Europe. The cake itself dates back to at least 1615 with a recipe of the cake featured in The English Huswife. In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularised the cake, known as bûche de Noël in French, creating the more elaborate designs like you see today. Today the cake itself is more well-known than the origins it is based on.

Christmas Pudding

As we know it today, Christmas Pudding did not appear until the 19th century although it had its origins in the 14th century as pottage – a broth using many of the ingredients that are still in it now, alongside meat. It was served as a starter rather than a dessert. Its association with Christmas did not come until the 18th century. The Victorians were originators of the Stir Up Sunday tradition – the making the pudding on the fifth Sunday before Christmas where each family member took a turn to stir the mixture from east to west. This was meant to represent the journey of the Magi and bring the family good luck for the year. Like Twelfth Night Cake, it was also customary to hide small items within the mixture to symbolise what the future would hold for the person who found that item. A coin could signify future wealth, while a thimble would signify spinsterhood.

Christmas Cake

Like the Christmas Pudding, the Christmas Cake originated from pottage but also from the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. During the 19th century Christmas cake mostly supplanted the Twelfth Night cake and began to use elements such as marzipan for decoration. The expanding British Empire and migration to the colonies – hence the popularity of Christmas Cake outside of Britain – and within Britain itself, also meant that many people began to boil their Christmas Cake with alcohol to preserve the cake during travel. Like mince pies and Christmas Pudding, the spices of a Christmas Cake are meant to represent the Magi.


This German fruit bread has its own festival in Dresden and like those above has developed over its history. Originally it was much less sweet due to restrictions by the Catholic Church during Advent on the use of butter. Eventually Pope Innocent VIII 1491 allowed the Prince Elector of Saxony, his family and household to use butter for Stollen while bakers were allowed to as well as long as they paid a fine that was used to fund churches. This stopped several decades later when Saxony became Protestant. The festival around Stollen dates back to when the rulers of Saxony were presented with a Stollen by the bakers of Dresden. This stopped with the fall of the monarchy in 1918 but was resumed in 1994. The shape of the Stollen is meant to represent the swaddled baby Jesus.

Nazarens and drums

Holy Week is supposed to be a religious celebration. And it was. Probably it still is for some people. But in Spain, nowadays, it is more of a cultural manifestation, and a tourist attraction, very popular with nationals and foreigners alike. Each year this week of street demonstrations moves millions of euros; each year it moves less and less consciences into religion.   Though Spain is officially a non-confessional country, and statistics consistently show that religious feeling, and specially Catholic, is constantly declining moreover between the younger population, Catholic presence is still overwhelming in many everyday aspects, from education to holiday, from public ceremony to football. Even in politics and, allegedly, in governmental issues. And, during a whole week, main streets all over the country belong to the quite strange commemoration of a murder.   Most shocking for non accustomed visitants are the Nazarenes. These are the members and associates of “Cofradías”, which are club like institutions, usually focused in the promotion of one specific saint or virgin. Sounds a little strange, but it looks even stranger. Many of them keep company to the images all along the course of the demonstration which, in some cases, can last for more than ten hours.

Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.
Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.

From an artistic point of view, the most relevant thing of “Semana Santa” is the sublime imagery, which is considered one of the pinnacles of Spanish arts during the Baroque period. Those images, usually made from wood, sculpted and painted to achieve the maximum dramatic effect, are the center of the celebrations, and, although not all are pinnacles of its art, and many are mere copies or inspired by the long-lost originals, are revered in awe and justify by themselves a close look to this celebration. The better sculptures were designed by the likes of Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni. These artistic development began as a part of the Catholic Counter-Reform, of which Spain was the greatest defender. As a form of opposing Lutheranism and its despise for religious images, Spanish Catholics developed a fancy for realistic depictions of the life and deeds of Jesus Christ, and preferably of the last night with “Ecce homos” and Crucifixion at the top. Soon Saints, Virgins and scenes of the everyday life of Jesus began to take part in what, from the XVI century onwards, was a Catholic Church sponsored activity which, Spain being the stronger supporter of Catholicism, counted also on the Royal favor: the Spanish Monarchy wanted people showing of their love for God and Christ in the streets, and it was staged as a popular demonstration, state in which it has last.

One of the
One of the “Pasos” during the procession in Santander (Spain). It represents Judas betrayal.

The”Cofradías”, originated in guilds and unions during the Spanish Golden Century, were the center of those devotional celebrations. And they still survive, albeit in a different version, usually related to a specific church or district, otherwise there still are some guild based.   But let’s go back to the “Nazarens”. Clad in their long robes, usually hooded and handling some sort of torch, or light, this ghost-like figures are a constant presence in the Semana Santa. Penitents in the beginning, today most of them take part as a long running family tradition deprived of deepest religious meaning albeit devotion is still strong, mainly in Andalucia, and would probably be described as idolatry in many a culture as the zeal is customarily related only to a particular image and not necessarily as a part of a more complex religious understanding. Lately, the responsibility of increasing the ranks of the “Nazarens” falls mainly in woman and children. Moreover, quite a lot of those kids get involved with “procesiones”, as demonstrations are called, as a school activity as they assist to schools run by religious orders more because of the quality of the education provided than as a result of a strong family involvement with religion.

“Little Nazarene” getting ready for procession with her school’s parish Cofradia.

An act of cultural affiliation, maybe, as Semana Santa and its traditions are considered, at least by a significant share of the locals, as a mains stake of true Spanish culture and way of life. And that extends to music, or some kinds of music at least: it is customary for “Cofradías” to parade along with wind and brass small bands or even to boast their own Nazarene musicians, all clad as their mates but playing the traditional drums and bugles. It is everything but ironic that, for instance, the main “procesión” in the city of Santander is called “Del Silencio” (the Silence) while almost every “Cofradía” plays the drums during the whole parade.   The everyday of a Nazarene during the Passion Week, as it is sometimes called, could be really stressful, because responsibilities with the “Cofradía” must be usually shared with regular life duties, thus creating a very harsh timetable. It depends on the geographical areas and local traditions, and we have to admit that some days are considered Bank Holidays that week, but the fact remains that “procesiones” do start after dusk, and the longest of them end in the morning. And all that could take place after a long day at work or school. When arriving home, the Nazarene must change clothes. Again, there are different local customs, but the customary basic equipment comprises of a large cloak which covers a habit and is held by a soft rope; dark plain shoes, gloves, and the always surprising hood, which sometimes, with newcomers, arise the non too fair and tremendously awkward comparison with KuKluxKlan that so annoys Spaniards.

Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias
Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias

This hood could have a cardboard frame inside to give it a long conical look, and children would not wear it, as is for penitents and sinners and small kids are considered still pure enough. Now clad like an anonymous Templar, you can go out and walk through your town keeping company to a four hundred years old wooden sculpture of Christ in the cross which is considered a masterpiece. And that would last at least four hours. Fortunately, if you are a kid, you’ll probably get some candy for all the effort.

Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities

Festivities and celebrations have always been cultural aspects of every civilization. People have traditionally used them to express an idea, to remember something that happened or to celebrate a glorious event. Feasts are somehow part of the collective identity, they are important and frequent, and so they were in the pre-modern world. Celebrations were meant to bring the whole town joy, honour and unity. Obviously we have to consider that these festivities would be different depending on their location and the people who performed them. For example, in Poland and Lithuania, royal celebrations like birth or marriages were less significant than in other countries, because they did not mean anything for succession as they were elective monarchies. Also, different celebrations had different purposes. In Christian Europe, many of them were celebrated in dates that matched the liturgical calendar, so it is reasonable to assume that these would have some sort of religious connections. But there were many reasons for these celebrations: fear and gratitude being some of the most common ones. For example, the Bavarian and Tyrolese Passion plays were performed for the first time due to the end of a wave of plague in 1633. Entries and marches of aristocratic figures into towns were also occasions to celebrate, as well as jousting tournaments, feats of fools, student plays and, of course, carnivals.

Continue reading “Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities”

Pope John XII: Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Pope?

Today I am dedicating this blog update to a very despicable, dishonourable and disturbing man. This is a very curious thing to do as I just noticed, and maybe some of you have noticed as well, that I usually write about people’s history, mankind good causes and hope. However, this with perhaps the addition of my update for the month of violence is rather a dark, grim one.  Today I am talking about a man who many would probably not know and many others most likely would not like to know, just like myself. Today, I am presenting you the story of a rather young man called Octavian, that lived during the Middle Ages, in the first part of the 10th century in one of the most important places in the world at the time: Rome, and more precisely the Papal States. I am talking indeed about the man better known as Pope John XII, who was pontiff of the Catholic Church from the 16th of December, 955 to the 14th of May, 964. It is a funny story this one of John.

Continue reading “Pope John XII: Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Pope?”