St. Nicholas and Gingerbread

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecember 5th and 6th are big dates in the Santa Claus legend.  (Some of you know that my secret identity is that of Mrs. Claus, so the whole Santa legend is something I’ve spent a lot of time looking in to.  At some point I’ll have my Mrs. Claus book finished, and then I’ll be the leading authority on that too)  😉


December 6th is St. Nicholas of Bari’s Feast Day (died AD 350).  He is the Patron Saint of Aberdeen, Bakers, Barrel Makers, Bootblacks, Brewers, Brides, Children, Dockworkers, Fishermen, Greece, Merchants, Pawn Brokers, Parish Clerks, Perfumers, Prisoners, Russia, Sailors, Scholars, Spinsters, and Travelers.  Nicolas was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), although his relics are in Bari, Italy, and ooze a sweet-smelling, myrrh-like substance (hence Perfumers).

St. Nicolas with children in a barrel
In one of his miracles, he restored three children to life who were pickled in a butchers’ shop during a time of famine, (hence Children). In France, Nicolas is often pictured with a barrel with 3 children sticking out of the top.


He provided a poor family with three golden 450pPawnbroker's_sign,_Camden_High_Street,_Londonballs as a dowry for the daughters to save them from prostitution (3 golden balls representing financial aid in times of need was then taken on by pawnbrokers as their symbol).

His other miracles included providing the poor with bread (hence Bakers). He has often appeared to sailors in storm-tossed seas, and to those unjustly imprisoned to effect their release.

St. Nick and Krampus In France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (where his name morphed into “Santa Claus”), he visits children on this day with presents. Children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for his horse. In the Netherlands, he is accompanied by “Black Peter”, a Moorish servant, who carries a bag of gifts for good children and switches for bad ones.  Black Peter or ‘Zwarte Piet‘  is a holdover from the 17th century, when the Netherlands were under Spanish rule.  If a child is really bad, Black Peter will stuff them in his bag and take them back to Spain!  Other “helpers” that accompany St. Nick include the ferocious Krampus!  (We enjoy a nice Krampus Ale as part of our early December festivities.)

St. Nicholas GingerbreadsIn France, Pere Noel looks after the good children, while Pere Fouettard (Father Spanker, introduced in 1700) takes care of the naughty ones!  In 1652 the Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations. In Germany, the Lutherans were more moderate, and the character of St. Nicholas traded in his bishop’s garb for furs and a cap.  Protestants invented ‘Christkindle’ – a Christ child figure often played by a girl in white with a star over her head, another legacy from Roman and pagan festivals. (Such as St. Lucy on Dec. 13th).  It wasn’t until 1822 when Clement Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, based on his Dutch farm hand Jan, a tubby little man with a white beard and twinkling eyes, that the image became popular again in the form we know today and shifted to being honored on Christmas Eve.

In the Netherlands, December 5th is Strewing Eve.  Before the appearance of St. Nicholas and the Moor Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), he throws a handful of ‘pepernoten’ or spice cakes down the chimney or through the door.

St. Nicholas Gingerbread In Nuremberg, a huge Christmas market is known for gingerbread creations.  Adding pepper and other spices to sweet creations is a part of historical cooking that I just love.


Medieval Gingerbrede was different from the cakey type we know today.  It was made from breadcrumbs and spiced honey.  It is one of my favorite medieval recipes, although I can’t eat it now that I am gluten free.  While I haven’t tried it with alternative crumbs, I may have to play with that this winter.

Here is a tongue-twisting reciept from the 14th century, along with my modern adaptation of Medieval Gyngerbrede.  Try reading the original out loud (I use this as an introduction to the language of the middle ages for my students) :




To make gingerbrede. The Forme of Cury, Curye on Inglysch*

Take goode honye & clarefie it on the fere, & take fayre paynemayn or wastel brede & grate it, & cast it into the boylenge hony, & stere it well togeyder faste with a sklyse that it bren not to the vessell.  & thanne take it doun and put therin ginger, longe pepere & saundres, & tempere it up with thin handes; & than put hem to a flatt boyste & strawe theron suger, & pick therein clowes rounde aboute by the egge and in the mydes, yf it plece you, &c.

{*The Forme of Cury, from a manuscript dated 1381, on the Feast of Saints Felix and Audatus (August 30th), included in the compilation “Curye on Inglysch” edited by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, c. Early English Text Society by the OxfordUniversity Press, 1985}

Gyngerbread (Rendered Recipe)

This gingerbread is not the cake that we know today, but rather a sticky confection that is very rich.  If you get your honey from a beekeeper, you might need to boil it and skim the scum off the top, removing wax, bee parts and other impurities until it is clear.  If you have clear honey to start with, heat it in a large pot until it begins to bubble. Add ginger and other spices, this mixture can be very peppery and spicy if you wish.  Cloves, pepper (and other types of pepper such as cubebs, grains of paradise, and long pepper can also be used), saffron, saunders (a non-aromatic sandalwood that gives a red-orange to red-brown color) powder douce and/or powder forte can all be used.  Grate breadcrumbs (fine white bread can be used, but I think brown bread makes better gingerbread) and add them to the honey.   The drier the breadcrumbs, the more honey they will absorb so again, the amounts will vary.  You will use roughly twice as many breadcrumbs by volume as honey.  Keep adding breadcrumbs until the honey is absorbed, and the mass has reached a dough-like consistency. Turn it out into an oiled pan to cool.  Once cool, you can mold it or form it into individual pieces.  Strew with sugar (this will help make the outside less sticky) and decorate with cloves or other spices, even herbs.

Gingerbread (Modern Recipe Formula)

Saunders for color
Saunders for color

3 c. honey
2 tsp. powdered cinnamon
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1/2 tsp. ground long pepper (or white or black pepper)
1/4 tsp. powdered cloves
6 cups *dry* bread crumbs, crushed/processed to the consistency of cornmeal
Cinnamon/(white) sugar mixture for sprinkling, or Saunders to sprinkle on top
Whole cloves (optional)

Rich with spices: ginger, cloves, saunders, cinnamon, and long pepper
Rich with spices: ginger, cloves, saunders, cinnamon, and long pepper


Bring the honey and spices to a boil in a large saucepan, then turn off the heat and stir in bread crumbs 1 cup at a time, mixing completely for best texture.

Spread the resulting dough out on a baking sheet lined with foil or waxed paper, cover with another sheet of waxed paper, and roll out to a thickness of approx. 1 inch.
Sprinkle well with cinnamon and sugar (about 1 part cinnamon to 4 parts sugar works well; the mix can be varied to taste).  Using a sharp knife, cut into 1 – 1 1/2 inch squares.

Medieval Gyngerbrede in process
Medieval Gyngerbrede in process

Let cool until firm enough to handle, then break apart squares and lay out on a tray to finish cooling.  If you like, push a whole clove spike into each square for decoration.  The clove can be eaten or held in the mouth (especially effective as a medieval cure for a toothache!) or discarded.



 Happy St. Nicolas’ Feast Day!

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