‘Lebkuchen’ most famous Christmas cookie

Petra Lessoing
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***A traditional plate with Christmas sweets in a German home also includes “Lebkuchen” or gingerbread. Lebkuchen is one of the most popular, oldest and beloved Christmas cookies in Germany.

Its origin goes back to Teutonic times. Teutones thought that the predecessor of lebkuchen, the “Honigkuchen” or honey cake, had magical powers and helped keep bad spirits within bounds.

In the Middle Ages, gingerbread was used as a means of payment. Vassals paid their feudal duty with the specialty, and dukes and civil servants were bribed with it. It was known for bringing good luck at wedding and baptism ceremonies. Gingerbread was difficult to obtain by most people, because it was a valuable specialty made of expensive ingredients.

In the 11th century, a handwritten document from a monastery near Lake Tegernsee in Bavaria mentions the “Pfefferkuchen,” pepper cake, for the first time. In 1293, the first gingerbread baking guild was documented in Silesia. In the 14th century, the making of gingerbread became popular in Munich, Frankfurt, Basel, Vienna and Nuremberg, which is famous for its “Nürnberger Lebkuchen.”

Bee-keepers from a little town near Nuremberg helped bring fame and a good reputation to the town. With plenty of fir and pine trees, oak trees and linden, sloe trees, hazelnut bushes, spurge-laurels and heather growing in the forests near Nuremberg, enough nectar was available for the bees. The so-called “Zeidler,” forest and house bee-keepers, founded a large guild, and harvested the honey from honeycombs in tree holes or crevices.

At that time, honey was the only existing sweetener. Due to world-wide commercial connections of local merchants, the bakers of gingerbread were able to receive all necessary ingredients – pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other spices.

In the Nuremberg area, the bee-keepers maintained about 50 farms and in 1350, Emperor Karl IV gave them the privilege of being the only people allowed to harvest the honey in his forests. The bee-keepers wore their own costumes, cross-bow and arrows and were the emperor’s bodyguards. They also maintained their own court of justice where they handled all crimes committed in the forests and against the beehives.

In 1796, Prussian occupants limited this jurisdiction, and three years later, they took it away totally.

The honey pastures in the imperial forests of Nuremberg don’t exist today, but the making of gingerbread is still considered an art clothed in secrets.

Today’s modern production still relies on old recipes that masters have passed down from generation to generation.