James (CC BY­SA 2.0)

It’s a perfect weekend for baking. So let’s go to Germany and learn more about their favorite traditional holiday treat: Lebkuchen.

Mmm, mmm. Smells good, doesn’t it? Cloves, ginger, cinnamon: the seasonal spices are in the air. And that takes me back to one of my favorite treats: Lebkuchen. I’ll confess it. My two favorite sweets are Marzipan-Kartoffeln (marzipan made to look like tiny potatoes) and German Lebkuchen. I’ll leave marzipan potatoes for another day because Lebkuchen is squarely on my mind today.

Lebkuchen is a dense, spiced German cookie that appears in stores in mid-November. Increasingly, you find it in U.S. shops too, which delights me. But when you find it, keep in mind, Lebkuchen is seasonal—baked for a specific holiday period, so it is (or should be) free of preservatives. That means it has a short shelf life.

“Seasonal” is a hard concept for us here in the U.S. where we revolve around a 24/7, twelve-month a year system. But try to imagine going to buy, say, Oreos and finding out that they’re available only in November and December. Or learning that Oreos stay fresh only a few weeks. Wait! Oreos never last more than a few days, do they?

But still, try to imagine. Because the lack of availability is part of what enhances an item. Looking forward to the seasonal appearance of special treats makes them far more delicious when they finally appear. Expectation, anticipation: such old concepts that run counter to our modern culture. But isn’t that also one of the reasons people are attracted to the flavor palate of Christmas?

Most of us grew up with Lebkuchen’s cousin, gingerbread. We’ll look at the difference in a minute. But first, let’s explore the etymology of Lebkuchen whose name derives from roots as varied as Leben (life), Leibe (body), Laib (loaf), or lebbe (super-sweet).

The Kuchen part definitely means “cake.” But usually we find Lebkuchen cut into a firm, round cookie or oblong bar. The dough is intensely flavored by various combinations of molasses, honey, cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, coriander, aniseed, allspice, nutmeg, lemon zest, and hazelnuts. It is then pressed onto white or cream-colored sheets called Oblaten. These serve as wafer-thin bottoms for the cookie. After baking, Lebkuchen are dusted with sugar, glazed, or covered in chocolate. And that’s how most people buy them, stacked on their edges in packs of 5 or 10 and wrapped in cellophane.

Lebkuchen dough can also be mixed to be rolled out into a dense layer (c. ½ inch thick). It’s then cut into a heart shape of various sizes, suitable for hanging as a decoration. No German Advent market (Weihnachtsmarkt) is complete without the kiosks where colorfully iced Lebkuchen hearts dangle enticingly. People don’t necessarily eat these hearts; rather, they are supposed to be presented to one’s sweetheart or beloved family members.

I first encountered Lebkuchen while living in West Germany in the early 1980s. It was one of those: “Where have you been all my life” moments. Earlier, I had formed a friendship with an East German musician in Russia where we had studied together at the Leningrad Conservatory. Despite many restrictions back then, it was possible to send treats at Christmastime from West Germany to East Germany. I asked my friends what I should select. “A box of Nürnberg Lebkuchen,” they all said. Acknowledged as the best, the Lebkuchen from Nürnberg came in festive wrappings including a decorated metal box that featured a wind-up music box embedded in the bottom. This gift was most happily received and, to my surprise, the box remains a keepsake in her family, decades after the reunification of Germany.


HannaWebb (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Where does gingerbread fit in this story, especially the gingerbread men our children so love to decorate?

The word gingerbread goes back not to “bread,” as we might guess, but to a 13th-century Old-French verb meaning “to preserve with ginger” (gingenbrat). There’s actually a Latin root gingimbratus that means “something gingered.” The noun form ginginbrar was transformed through folk usage by the 14th century into ginginbrede (brede=bread). Then, by the mid 18th century, the meaning of gingerbread was amplified to mean something intricately, perhaps frivolously, decorated. English sailors were known to call the decorative carvings on a ship gingerbread-work.

Ginger, itself, is an ancient, highly prized root. Known to the Romans (zingiberi) and Greeks (zingiberis), the word for ginger dates back to Middle Indic singabera, and, from there, possibly, to Sanskrit srngaveram. In that root you find srngam (horn) joined with vera (body), describing the root’s horn-shape.

The medicinal uses of ginger are legendary. Even today ginger shows up in healing teas and, to my surprise, as a remedy in a modern venue where I frequently work: cruise ships. Yes, dishes of candied ginger are placed around the ship and they really do help, especially if one has to give a talk on rolling seas!

But the most beloved form of ginger will always be those pudgy cookie-men with dots for eyes and a wry icy smile. References to gingerbread men are recorded from the mid 19th century, although surely moms centuries earlier were fashioning cookies into such charming shapes, don’t you think? And while you can bake ginger cake, bread, and cookies any time, the fragrance and flavor will always be associated with the winter months.

If your kids are older, have them look up the differences between the recipes for Lebkuchen and gingerbread. You can read the history of Nürnberg Lebkuchen going back to the late 15th century. You’ll find alternative names (honey-cake and Pfeffernusse) and much more lore. If you have time, have a bake-off. One team can try a recipe for Lebkuchen and another can make gingerbread. Whatever the results, your home will smell fabulous.

Colors for Advent

Season of Awe and Mystery

Vivid images on our iPhones and blazing digital billboards have all but blinded us to the effect of color. We also forget how hard it was to make color. Today we click a button to add brilliance to our powerpoint; our ancestors crushed berries, seeped nut shells, and pulverized minerals to make dyes for their colors. Have your kids investigate the bizarre process for making highly prized indigo blue. They will discover that color was expensive.

Only the affluent could afford color, starting with dyes for fabrics. The wealthy were able to commission colorful illustrations (illuminations) in their manuscript copies of books. The cost of paint on an artist’s palette could be prohibitive, too, unless someone rich sponsored the painting or fresco. Later, when the printing press became the technology of choice in the late 15th century, the technological challenges of color printing (multiple passes through the press) were formidable. Color, in short, was a luxury for a very long time.

From the Renaissance forward, thinkers responded to the rise of color, formulating what we’d call “color theory” today. In the late 18th century, German author Johann von Goethe formulated a comprehensive theory of color, developing a color wheel to illustrate his ideas. The walls of his airy Weimar mansion reflect each color’s function: those that best facilitated good digestion (dining room), inspired social enjoyment (music room), and ensured a good domestic atmosphere (sitting rooms).

But centuries earlier, the Christian Church had already established a detailed system for distinguishing periods of worship throughout the church year. We call them Liturgical Colors and they are displayed still today on altar cloths, worn within pastoral garments, and used for devotional decorations like banners.

So here’s a quiz that even a small child can take.

What are the most important liturgical colors of the season (both Advent and Christmas)? Choose as many as you wish.


If you picked all of the answers, you are right! Each of these colors has a place.

The traditional color for Advent is violet. It’s okay to call it purple – I do too. Technically violet has its own spectrum on the color wheel, while purple is a composite color made of red and blue, but many an eye will confuse them.

Another liturgical color for Advent is blue, known as the Marian color because of its association with the Virgin Mary. Look at any painting of the Madonna from the Middle Ages on, and you’re likely to find Mary wearing a blue garment of some sort.

But one sees violet far more during Advent. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t that the color for Lent?” you are absolutely right. Violet is the liturgical color for a season of prayer, fasting, and penance. And Advent historically has been a penitential season, in spite of the festive Christmas parties all around us.

At one point the Advent fasting season lasted even longer than it does today! Called the St. Martin’s Fast or St. Martin’s Lent, it began on November 12, the Feast of St. Martin.

Still, the four-week period, once finally established, still covers a goodly amount time, doesn’t it? So it, like Lent, also has a day of “exception”: the third Sunday of Advent called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the imperative form of the Latin verb gaudere, meaning “rejoice.” When that third Sunday comes, we’ll tell you more about why this name is chosen. For now, just know that the liturgical color for “rejoicing” is rose (pink). And that matches up perfectly with the rose candle lit on the third Sunday in Advent.

Now, on to the colors of Christmas itself. Everyone else may be rolling in red, green, but the traditional color for Christmas is (drumroll please) . . . white.

Yes, white! Ah, the challenge of being a Christian.

The change to white occurs on Christmas Eve, when Advent violet gives way to a blazing white. White is considered the most festive color in the entire church calendar. It is the color reserved for Christmas and for the greater feast of Easter (known as the Feast of Feasts). White is also used for baptisms, marriages, ordinations, as well as “festal” observances that not every Christian denomination celebrates actively, but most do acknowledge.

What about gold, then? Well, one sees gold used primarily in combination with white for the high feast days. And silver? A metallic silver can be used as an alternative to white. But, basically, for the highest Christian festivals, the traditional liturgical color still will be white.

So what about red and green? What would commercial Christmas be without red and green? Well, red and green do have historical connections with Christmas. In the Middle Ages, popular Christmas dramas juxtaposed scenes of Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden with the promise of the coming Messiah. Such plays featured “paradise trees”–evergreens decorated with red apples, which served as one precursor of the Christmas tree.

But red and green really find their role in seasons beyond Christmas. Green is used during the season of Epiphany, between January 6th and the beginning of Lent. And green returns for the longest season of the church year (Ordinary Time) that begins after Pentecost and stretches for months until Advent begins.

Red is the color of fire, so it is used for Pentecost. It is also the color of blood. That means you will find it on Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus instituted the Last Supper in the Upper Room with his disciples. It may also be used for Palm Sunday. And of course red and green dominate the world of secular Christian festivity.

So, tell your kids that, yes, red and green are important colors in Christian tradition. They’re just not the only colors. Nor, by far, are they the most important ones. Now, take that quiz again, for these indeed are the colors of the season!

Image: Season of Awe and Mystery, Joana Roja (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Gratitude in Porcelain

Thanksgiving can wrap us in a swirl of recollections: autumn colors, savory flavors, delicious smells, and the sweet voices of persons long departed. The powerful memories start each Thanksgiving for me when I cradle my mother’s china, each chip bearing its own history.

minna-porcelainMy mother treasured her china. Cream colored, delicately floral, with a gold rim, it certainly was not fancy: Regal, by Sango, was a modestly priced pattern widely available after World War II. I don’t know if she bought it all at once or in pieces. I wouldn’t have known even to ask that question. Nor could I have appreciated what it meant for someone with her impoverished heritage actually to have a set of china.

We used it at most 5 or 6 times a year: Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, plus the rare occasion when we might have a guest. And of course Thanksgiving. Otherwise it sat in Mamma’s modest, but treasured faux Queen Anne china closet—the one that now stands in my dining room.

Thanksgiving was the best of all holidays as far as I was concerned. Not long enough to get bored, devoid of the inevitable Christmas disappointments and tensions, with two precious days off school to boot! Aunts, cousins, and even some neighbors came. My parents were not social, so seeing this much bustle in our house was astonishing.

And the meal? It was Mamma’s best! We couldn’t appreciate how hard she worked back in that small kitchen, waging the campaign that allowed turkey dinner to appear on those gold-rimmed plates. No one was allowed to help her, either, because we “wouldn’t do it right.”

When my mother died in 1998, one of my first impulses was to replace the chipped serving pieces of her china. It was not a rational decision. I had my own china.

But I wanted her back! Her exhausting seven-year battle with cancer had been horrible for her, for all of us. I knew I could never again embrace that feisty, tiny, magnificent woman who had done so much to bless my life. The next closest thing seemed to be addressing her china, and making it whole again.

So I called one of those china replacement companies—wondrous places back in the days before eBay. The nice lady on the phone said “I bet you just lost your mom, didn’t you?” Surprised, I asked how she knew that. She said it was very common for women to do what I was doing, precisely for that reason. The prices of the replacement pieces shocked me, but it didn’t matter. I ordered them. And, irrationally kept the chipped ones.

Fortunately most of my mother’s gifts didn’t come in porcelain form and thus could never be chipped. Many were poems and hymns. One particular hymn text written before the turn of the 20th century by a little-known poetess named Ethel Wasgatt Dennis has remained my favorite. The poem goes nicely with the Thanksgiving season. For that matter, I haven’t found a single day yet when it does not apply, or when I’m not better off for singing it.

A grateful heart a garden is,
Where there is always room
For every lovely, Godlike grace
To come to perfect bloom.

Gratitude can be a worrisome thing. Slippery, even. Many of us can recall painful situations in our lives where our gratitude was not expressed sufficiently. The thank-you note not written, the gift not sent, the helpful gesture not extended or returned. Those memories can weigh heavily on our souls. It seems to me, though, that we heal such sadness by expressing gratitude now. And by recognizing and esteeming the palliative power of gratitude.

Gratitude and inspiration are deeply linked. One of the best cures I know to frustration, disappointment, exhaustion, or dismay is gratitude. It’s the antidote that helps turn I’m tired, I’m mad, No one is helping me, and I can’t do this into How blessed I am to be able to be here, right now, doing whatever it is.

The second verse of the text reflects another, often overlooked, quality of gratitude that we sometimes forget: gratitude’s strength.

A grateful heart a fortress is,
A staunch and rugged tower,
Where God’s omnipotence, revealed,
Girds man with mighty power.

Gratitude can turn dark into light within an instant. Gratitude lifts burdens, and opens shuttered doors. Gratitude dissolves sorrow and invites in joy. No, it cannot solve or fix everything. But it has intense power to soothe many a complex or baffling situation.

I was always surprised that, during those long years of my mother’s illness, she continued to sing the text of this hymn. But she knew gratitude to be one thing that not even the most awful disease could erase in her. She tried to teach that lesson to me. And I hope I have passed it on.

We’re about to embark on a series of meaningful holidays: Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, and Epiphany. Each of us will have ample challenges with long lists of obligations and duties. May we each remember that gratitude can be tucked into the tiniest pocket or woven into the narrowest crevice. Let us grow accustomed to drawing upon the strength and vitality that gratitude affords. And may each of you be bathed with the blessing of a grateful heart.

Celebrating Veterans and St Martin

All Saints Day and All Souls Day are behind us. You may still have Halloween hangover in your house depending on how long the candy lasted. Soon, attention will turn fully to Thanksgiving.


WWI Veteran John Ambrose

Before entering the world of pumpkin pie, I’d like to reflect upon two commemorations occurring on November 11. The first, of course, is Veterans Day, an American holiday proclaimed first as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson to honor the official cessation of hostilities in World War I in 1918.

By 1954 Armistice Day had been retitled Veterans Day and blended into a broader celebration of all those who served in the American military. Growing up among adults from the “Greatest Generation,” I received a positive understanding of Veterans Day in our school curriculum and remember well the enthusiastic parades, respectful silences, and heroic stories retold and honored.

But, alas, veterans are no longer esteemed in our mass culture. Percentagewise, few of our citizens serve. The commonalities and traditions of military service that once bound people together are scattered to the wind.

The end of World War I is celebrated across Europe on November 11. But commemorations, not as familiar, share this day, including the celebration of the life of St Martin of Tours. He is considered a patron saint of soldiers, but that’s not what most people think of when they hear his name.


Master of Uttehneim, St Martin of Tours and St Nicholas of Bari (c. 1475)

St Martin was born in what today is Hungary, probably in 316, and lived in an era when Christianity was still a newly legalized religion in the Roman Empire. Raised to be a career soldier, he ultimately left military service, finding it incompatible with his ever-strengthening Christian beliefs. The most famous story about St Martin occurred while he was still a soldier and stumbled across a poor, unclothed man. He responded to this man’s needs by slicing his cloak in two with his sword.

Once he devoted himself fully to God, he strove to live his life in simplicity, including living as a hermit. But he found himself repeatedly drawn into the complex issues surrounding the developing Christian faith and served in many capacities, including being appointed Bishop of Tours.

Yet the German, French, and Italian children parading through the streets after sunset on November 11 think little about Martin’s theological battles. For them, St Martin’s Day is a beloved children’s festival where they decorate paper lanterns and process through the streets. Often towns or churches will present the drama of St Martin in an open square or on the steps of a church, replete with a real horse for the actor playing St Martin. You’ll get an idea of how such a version might look in this clip from Kempen, Germany, complete with bonfire.

Last year our granddaughter was able to participate in St Martin’s Day festivities while in Weimar, Germany. Alas, it rained hard that evening, but the families were still out, plastic bags protecting the delicate lanterns illuminated by wobbly candles and battery-fed flashers.

Once darkness fell, we gathered at the steps of the Catholic Church under a canopy of umbrellas to hear costumed figures sing the narrative, accompanied by medieval instruments. A silvery horse stood waiting for “St Martin” to spring on its back and lead the procession. By the time we sloshed our way into the main square, we were drenched. Rather than stay to participate in the games launched from a temporarily erected stage, we ducked into the first cozy café we found.

We weren’t alone. It was crammed with rain-soaked kids, worried whether their lanterns were still in one piece. Steaming cocoa and plum cake went a long way toward restoring our spirits. The rain let up just enough to let us for us to process back home, singing robustly.

We are going to have our own Texas-style St Martin’s parade this year. We’ll enlist neighborhood kids to join us in constructing and decorating lanterns. We’ll learn a few songs, too, including our two favorites: Ich gehe mit meine Laterne. (I walk with my Lantern) and Laterne, Laterne (Lantern, Lantern).

Once these tunes enter your ear, you may have a hard time losing them. They’re not quite as invasive as Wheels on the Bus, but they are infectious. Consider yourself forewarned!

Thinking about these two events—one a tribute to our soldiers and the other a celebration of a soldier of God—I’m reminded how important it is to observe and teach traditions. A child learns incalculable lessons by watching the laying of a wreath or by cheering a parade of proud veterans who survived crucial events in our history. And even though couched as a sweet children’s festival, a commemoration like St. Martin’s Day links us with the tumultuous days of our early Christian history. Tradition provides the content, the context, and a ready means of grasping difficult things. As year leads to year, understanding deepens, so that these same traditions can be passed on as gifts to the next generation.

Ravishing Radishes Refresh Remembrances

radishesLet me tell you about the radishes here in Budapest. Maybe you have such radishes where you live, but, for me, radishes this big and tasty come only from the “paprika capital” of the world: Hungary.

Eating Hungarian radishes is like biting into an apple—juicy but crisp, sweet but pungent. I try to talk myself out of buying them every time I come to Budapest. I don’t really need them: the tour I’m leading includes marvelous meals.

But each time I’m here, a bunch of radishes rolls off the shelf and leaps into my arms. As if they are contraband, I tuck them under my jacket and sneak them into my room at the Castle Hilton. Phew. We are safe!

Sometimes travel comes down to things like radishes. The richness of intense travel can be overwhelming. In my work, I interact with a lot of different people on these tours: from fifth-graders to nonagenarians. Nearly all are encountering the details of hitherto unfamiliar histories for the first time. We’re traveling through places with complex stories like Russia, Poland, and Croatia. At a certain point, the tidal wave of information overwhelms the body, soul, and mind. Names like Vaclav, Sigismund, Kasimir, and Ivan somehow blend together into a single towering king, legendarily responsible for every dynastic disaster or accomplishment. Who can sort it out?

That’s why radishes help. Radishes, or something else simple that pegs the places we’re visiting. It’s easier to learn when we encounter things on simpler terms. For example, everyone is dazzled by the luminescent Zsolnay tiles that bedeck the magnificent roof of St. Mathias Church. But how can our eyes take in that beauty? How can they remember it?


St. Matthias Church, Civertan Grafik (CC BY-SA 2.5)

One strategy might be visiting a shop and buying a tiny figurine cast in the same Zsolnay porcelain. It could be a bird, a cross, or a miniature gargoyle. It will be colorful and luminescent, fit in a pocket or hang as a pendant. Most importantly, it will long serve as a reminder of the beauty experienced.

Some simple reminders are intangible, particularly smells and sounds. In Krakow, everyone’s heart is stolen by the Trumpeter of Krakow. The ancient tune resounds from the tower of St. Mary’s Church that overlooks the vast, opulent square. The trumpeters (a small brigade of professionals) play this brief, oddly truncated fanfare every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And they play it in 4 directions, opening the tower windows to the West, South, East, and North. By doing this, they not only stamp a musical signature on Krakow, but they evoke a centuries’ old practice when such church towers were the best watch towers for spotting an advancing army.

A personal favorite travel fragrance of mine comes also from Krakow. Their signature gingerbread, called Pierniki, is baked as small, dense biscuits shaped into hearts, diamonds, and clubs and dusted with a light coating of powdered sugar. Like every point of local pride, it is allegedly the “best in the world.” Those legendary kings probably gobbled it up as heartily as we moderns do.

The simple things can take the form of ritual visits. In Bratislava, once our official walking tour concludes, I walk to an inelegant, out-of-the-way shop where they print T-shirts decorated with patterns taken from ancient Slavic culture. These shirts aren’t cheap, but they last and last. I buy one occasionally and get so much pleasure from wearing it, particularly when people say “Wow, where’d you get that?” I can answer “Bratislava,” which, as you might guess, opens up an opportunity to talk about Slovakia—a gorgeous country not on everyone’s radar.

Maybe the most beautiful ritual visit I make happens late at night in Vilnius, Lithuania. The small, street-side chapel called Holy Trinity Church is the site of a beloved icon known as the “Image of Divine Mercy.” Around the clock, the icon gazes tenderly at the enthusiastic, predominantly young worshipers who keep vigil around the clock, often singing spontaneously in Lithuanian and Latin.

People say to me: “You are soooo lucky to be able to do what you’re doing.” Boy, are they right. I’m the girl who, even in high school, wondered if I’d ever get beyond my back yard. People from my childhood traveled only in books.

But I have gotten out of that yard. I even got across the little mountain called Round Hill that rose up behind our neighborhood. I now regularly cross the Atlantic between six and ten times a year. I know where to find the creamiest ice cream in Weimar and the strongest hot chocolate in Tallinn. And when needed, after review, I can rattle off the history of the Hapsburg, Jagiellonian, or Romanov dynasties with minimal effort.

But the radishes help. The little things that are real to us today help us to grasp the difficult and puzzling things of history. Indeed, small connections weave a thread that will draw us through the complex tapestry of the past. The small, beautiful things we encounter inevitably remind us of how humans have risen from the ashes, surviving the horrifying and disastrous events that define history.

So next time I will bear my radishes proudly through the lobby of the Budapest Castle Hilton. To the elegantly dressed concierge, I will smile, and point to my radishes. “You have an astonishing country, sir. And amazing radishes.” He might just understand and smile back!

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We’re Supposed To Know It


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