Bread holds significant symbolic value. It plays a key role in the Christian faith; in all manner of celebrations and traditions. People are devoted to ‘their’ festive bread and corresponding customs. All sorts of traditions and old recipes continue to thrive to this day.
Research into the origin of customs and folklore surrounding the different types of breads and patisserie in Flanders and the Netherlands often dates back to Germanic religious practices and rituals. Numerous contemporary and historic customs and habits, as well as the huge range in breads and patisserie, all derive from ancient practices and (religious) mythology. With the advent of Christianity these customs were christianised. They prevailed, yet were adapted to a Christian saint’s and/or feast day. The medicinal powers that were attributed to bread and patisserie in Germanic culture were transferred onto the saints, or onto the actual consumption of these christianised breads. This was a slow process as people tacitly held onto their superstitions/beliefs, feasts and customs.
Life and death
Archeological bread findings were frequently unearthed in a funeral or offering context. The Egyptians placed grain and breads in the sarcophagi of the deceased as food for the journey towards eternal life. The Romans held a funeral meal, and concluded the mourning period with another meal. Similarly, the Hindus gave the deceased bread to take with them. In Japan on New Year’s Eve people place bread on the deceased’s graves.
Bread isn’t just associated with death; it’s also linked to fertility. Demeter was the Greek goddess of fertility and grain. Death feasts and harvest festivals went hand in hand. Seed - that germinated and grew – signified food, and thus life. Bread was life. Bread was to be revered. Many old people who tilled the land believed that fertility of the soil was concentrated in bread. This made bread a sacred object that could transfer that power to whomever ate it.
Many occasion breads, such as the Flemish "vollaard" and the Dutch "duivenkater", refer to the offering of living beings, and the ‘pagan’ offering breads. Indeed, genuine offerings evolved into pseudo offerings: breads in the shape of the formerly sacrificed animals or people were placed on a grave and subsequently collected and handed out. Instead of the deceased female warrior herself, her plait or a bread in the form of her plait, was turned into an offering. Similar bread offerings appeared at various fertility festivals, which were frequently linked to death worship.
In Western culture the custom of making an offering of bread to the deceased disappeared. During the Frankish era burial gifts were shunned by Christianity. However, right up into the fifteenth century there are reports of believers who unlawfully left breads behind on graves. Over time this practice – just as other Germanic and Celtic customs that evolved into others - was permitted by the Church on Christian feast days and in Christian death worship.
Bread after the Mass
Up to the end of the nineteenth century bread was often handed out at funerals among the needy, choir boys, or engaged ’mourners’ (poor people who earned a little extra by attending). The pastor also got his share … the breads were divvied out after the Mass at the back of the church, or in the vestibule. Several churches had a so-called bread bench or festive fare bench at the rear. In South Kempen ‘funeral biscuits’ or ‘maslins’ were handed out; round biscuits made from wheat flour with a well in the middle. They were given to the people who had attended the funeral service. The priest was given an extra big one, with currants in it.
The lunch held after a funeral possibly dates back to the time of burial gifts abolishment. This meal replaced the custom of making an offering of bread to the deceased. In the present-day we still have the light lunch.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
Former funeral customs played a role in the celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. On those days Christians commemorate all the saints and deceased respectively. This Christian feast day borrowed a few customs from the Celtic New Year, the Samhain feast (1 November). After the All Souls’ Mass bread was handed out among the poor. Former offers to the Gods, or other powers, were transformed into gifts presented to the poor, or to children. These hand-outs were organised by a monastery, or were specified (and paid for) in a will, for example. For example, in Peer in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, each year on a fixed day, ‘white bread’ was handed out, which was paid for by a foundation. In Schulen, bread was handed out on Palm Sunday: the apostle pieces or pauper’s bread. In some municipalities a coin was put into the bread, or this bread charity was replaced with a pauper’s penny. In some areas of Flanders the handing out of bread continued right up to the First World War, and the handing out of money until the Second World War.
Some domestic customs – that escaped the church’s eagle eye – also date back to pre-Christian beliefs. By eating specific patisserie on All Souls’ Day, suffering souls were saved from purgatory. Those who ate a souls’ bread after saying a prayer, saved a soul. Prayers were also spoken when baking. The patisserie was given diverse names: souls’ biscuits, crucifix bread, maslins, angel bread, heeteweggen, little stars, star biscuits…In Wallonia, France, Germany, Ireland and Scotland too there is specific All Saints’ and All Souls’ patisserie.
Bread plays an important role in Christianity. From the eighth century onwards the Eucharist was made from wheat. That Eucharist, a round disc of unleavened wheat bread, symbolised (together with the drinking of wine) the Last Supper. Catholics believed that after its consecration the Eucharist was actually transformed into the Body of Christ (transubstantiation). The bread was living Christ.
Bread in the Bible
In the Bible the word ‘bread’ is used more than 350 times, often as a synonym for eating. Bread is a gift from God. He provides food. Many believers showed their thankfulness for this with a prayer at the start of their mealtime. In their daily prayer they thanked God and ask for his providence – ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Squandering bread or crumbs meant treating that gift from God with disdain, and was to be avoided. This linked up to the Germanic reverence for bread as giving life.
Folklore in the Kempen
This religious significance can be found back in a number of customs that also prevailed throughout the Kempen: a little cross was often pressed into the dough with the fingers prior to baking, and prior to cutting the loaf the bread was blessed by adding a cross on its underside with a knife, or by making a cross in the air with the knife. The residue of leaven for the following baking day was also often given a cross before being sprinkled with salt and stored away.
Life rituals and solidarity
Special breads and biscuits were baked for a plethora of festivities and life rituals. These were handed out among the poor, to the staff, children, neighbours, on the streets, as a gift to family members, or shared throughout the household …. Besides having roots in offerings (where gifts to the Gods evolved into gifts to others) patisserie also has significance at festive occasions as a ‘communal meal’. Communal eating, sharing food; it had nigh-on magical, and even healing, significance and to this day continues to create solidarity.
Celebrations weren’t limited to religious feast days. Individual occasions – be they in a religious context or not – gave rise to celebrations: births, birthdays, weddings, funerals. Bread and patisserie were then deployed as gifts and talismans. This custom subsequently evolved into gifts of money, or other gifts. Carnivals, pilgrimages, harvest festivals, moving house and annual markets all gave cause to bring out the festive bread and patisserie.
Why in the winter?
Across many European countries the winter feasts are the pinnacle for patisserie and festive bread. All Souls’ Day, All Saints’ Day, Martinmas, the feast of St. Nicholas, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the feast of the Epiphany all have their own bread, biscuit and patisserie-related traditions. Why was wintertime such a unique festive time? The answer can be found in old, pre-Christian customs. The winter wasn’t a fixed period in Western Europe during prehistory, ancient times or the early Middle Ages. It began when it was too cold to keep the cattle out on the fields, sometime around the start of November. This went hand in hand with a festive slaughtering season. These became Martinmas and the feast of St. Nicholas. (These saints on horseback are also correlated with the Germanic god Odin on his white steed.) For those who were, besides breeding cattle, also busy with crop cultivation, the summer ended sooner, with the bringing in of the last crops at the end of September, and the accompanying harvest festivals.
The winter was a long, dark, and also frightening period, reason enough therefore for plenty of ceremonial offerings. Special, protective powers were granted at communal bread eating. Christianity transformed these into the celebrating of saints with their own saints’ breads (such as St. Hubert, St. Agatha and St. Antonius). To that end, the old bread types were changed into Bible figures with their own legends and healing attributes. New Year’s Eve (the Germanic Yuletide) wasn’t a single day but rather an entire 12-night period (over which we now celebrate Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the feast of the Epiphany, and during which the shortest day of the year fell).
White bread was a sign of well-being and was therefore a ‘Sunday bread’. There are all sorts of variants, depending on the ingredients used (milk, butter, eggs, sugar …) Very rich (in ingredients) and decorated bread - nearly patisserie - was also to be found on the table at Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany. Feast days celebrating (patron) saints also had their own local festive bread. In literature examples of this are particularly found from East and West Flanders and Haspengouw. In Bree, the locals baked a St. Nicholas bread to mark the occasion, for example.
Right up to the fifteenth century currant bread was the byword in the Kempen for standard, daily bread. After that it became the byword for milk bread. In South Kempen a rye or currant loaf is a white loaf made using wheat flour, with the possible addition of milk. In East Kempen and Flanders it means bread enriched with eggs and butter. In Antwerp, a currant loaf is an elongated currant bread; in West Kempen rye loaf is made from sifted rye flour. In the As, Genk, Bilzen and Zutendaal region currant breads were also made with rye flour. Across various Limburg municipalities (from Haspengouw to the Kempen), bridal rye breads were baked and handed out at weddings. In Wijchmaal (at Peer) these were made using rye.
In Antwerp-Kempen krolkoek or krolleman were festive breads, where the ends of the loaf were cut into and curled. The shape most likely refers to the Cornucopia, or is related to the Germanic tree of life.
The continuing importance of bread as food, of patisserie at festive occasions, and the inexhaustible variables in the preparation thereof, ensures that new traditions and regional specialties will always come along. Many ancient customs disappeared toward the end of the First World War, but many new forms of patisserie evolved too. For example, in 1974, following festivities celebrating the restoration of the St. Gummarus tower, the ‘Lierse Haantje’ came into being. In the same year in Genk the Martinmas ‘Kroaker’ came into being. A lot of other local specialties appear to originate in the twentieth century too. Sometimes we can ascertain this from the ingredients used: sponge, pineapple or apricots, for example, indicate a more recent recipe. In other words, bread and patisserie are a living, evolving heritage.
Would you like to know more?
Besides bread also waffles, spiced biscuit, pancakes, and flans ... were baked in the Kempen. You can find more information (about the various Kempen patisseries and their provenance) in the comprehensive research report which can be downloaded here (in Dutch).