Waiting for Christmas Bread: Orthodox-ifying an Old German Custom

Yesterday, we were talking about perfectionism and Christmas. At the end of the post, I mentioned something I was doing to help curb the all-or-nothing attitude of perfectionism during the holidays. Something to help prepare my heart for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.

That thing is making Kletzenbrot (dried pear bread), a German fruit bread that contains many other dried fruits and nut along with dried pears. In English, I guess, we’d call it fruitcake. But when made the German style, it’s more bready and the dough is not quite as sweet. There’s more yeast and spices and flavors going on than in the traditional American/ British variety.

***Spoiler alert: my recipe for Kletzenbrot follows this post.***

Chopped dried fruit, waiting to be soaked in rum for Christmas Kletzenbrot.

Before I tell you why baking this particular Christmas bread is so meaningful to me, I have to let you in on a little secret. This is not a ritual passed down from my ancestors. They happened to be German, yes, but this isn’t something that was taught to me.

Kletzenbrot was simply something I decided to start doing a decade or so ago. I don’t know why that sometimes makes me feel ashamed, but it does. It can feel sort of vulnerable and awkward to stake out a new tradition for oneself. But it can also be a form of faith. Starting a tradition is one way to look with hope and gratitude towards the future, to take something old and make it new.

This kind of fruit bread reminded me of the time I’ve spent living in Germany. It also reminds me of a vintage, antique recipe I found once in a cookbook that archived German immigrant recipes in the region my ancestors settled. (Note: the first time I made this, it yielded some 30 modest sized loaves. I’ve reduced the yield since then. You’re welcome.) Over time, this little ritual took on it’s own symbolism and significance.

But I hadn’t made Kletzenbrot the last few years. First of all, who needs it when you can have Greek Christmas bread (Christopsomo). It’s the Christmas version of Tsoureki, the Greek Pascha bread with bright red hard-boiled eggs baked into it to symbolize the resurrection. Instead of eggs, the Christmas bread contains fruit and seeds–indications of new life being brought into the world. You have to wait for a tree to bear fruit, just like the world had to wait for the birth of Christ.

Honestly, though, there has been something missing.

As I sat last year eating my homemade Christopsomo, I realized I’d stopped baking German breads around the time I was chrismated in the Orthodox Church. At the time, it started feeling strange to bake German things, since German is not an “Orthodox culture” (whatever that means). When I’d bring German dishes to Church, people didn’t quite know what to do with them. So I just stopped.

As a result, in one sense, Christmas hasn’t quite felt like Christmas for a while. It’s a hard thing to try to balance as a convert, culture and Orthodoxy. And sometimes I have the sense that parts of myself haven’t quite made it into Orthodoxy, the German part included.

Yesterday, though, I had a kind of epiphany. Writing and thinking about my whole perfectionist predicament this year, it dawned on me that Kletzenbrot was a) the perfect place to start making my way past/through my Christmas despondency; and b) the perfect place to start weaving my German self and my Orthodox self back together again.

Why? Because Kletzenbrot is just full of typology and symbolism waiting to happen. And I think one of the reasons I used to love making it were some of the same reasons that drew me to Orthodoxy.

First, making Kletzenbrot is a lllllllong process–which can be stretched out even longer for heightened typological effect. It requires preparation and waiting–in the attached recipe, I’ve listed the prep time as “40 days” (only partly joking there). According to culinary lore, the actual baking of Kletzenbrot should happen on 21 December so that the bread itself can wait for Christmas (and soak up even more whopping flavor). In the Western Church, this date used to be the feast of St. Thomas (it’s not anymore, though, and in Orthodoxy the feast of St. Thomas is on 3 July, so this exact connection doesn’t quite hold up).

This year, I’ve things so I can bake it today, 22 December, the first day of the forefeast of Nativity. But before baking, you have to spend a few days doing little things here and there to prepare–drying some pears, chopping some dried fruit, marinating it in rum. I have a good friend who starts marinating her fruit in late October. So if you wanted, you could start the soak on 15 November, the beginning of the Nativity fast. You could even start soaking the bread during bright week, as a way to tie Pascha and Christmas together in a very fragrant way (as long as your fruit is dry to begin with, and you are using an air tight container and stirring it every week or two, it will not go bad or anything). I didn’t do that this year–just an overnight soak–but it’s an idea that occurred to me while writing this post and which I’ve noted in the recipe itself.

Anyway. To sum up: lots of waiting. This is not a bread you can do “all or nothing” on. It trains you to be patient and do things in steps, to form a relationship with this bread here and there in the ordinary spaces of your life. Only gradually does it all comes to fruition. Even just having this bread to tend the last day or two gives me small sites in my everyday life to remember what it is we are preparing our hearts for this week.

Second symbolic connection going on. I’ve already mentioned how nuts and fruits are associated with Christ’s birth, even in the Christmas breads of other cultures. Well, Kletzenbrot is like fruit and nut bread on steroids. I’ll put it this way: to be considered authentic Kletzenbrot, the loaf must consist at least an 8:2 ratio of dried fruit/nuts to dough (yes, I said “at least”). Excuse me: would you like a bit of bread with your fruits and nuts? The loaves almost don’t hold together, they’re so densely packed with life. It reminds me of a line from Frederika Mathewes-Greene’s famous essay Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known

Is there a concise way to say something? Can extra adjectives be deleted? Can the briskest, most pointed prose be boiled down one more time to a more refined level? Then it’s not Orthodox worship. If there’s a longer way to say something, the Orthodox will find it. In Orthodox worship, more is always more, in every area including prayer.

I feel like Kletzenbrot asks “Is there more fruit that can be added? More life-giving seeds? Are the seams of this dough bursting with abundance yet? If not, something’s wrong.”

Third and final connection. Traditionally, Kletzenbrot was not supposed to be eaten until after Christmas. This is not some post-industrial custom that materialized after the Nativity fast had faded from Western cultural practices (I’m looking at you, sugar cookies–you bane of my Advent existence, you!) It hearkens back to the middle ages, when even Western Christians still practiced some form of the Nativity fast. Aside from the rum needed to marinate (and preserve the dried fruit, the ingredients are fairly modest–no eggs, no oil, and just enough butter to coat the pans. But you still wait to eat it.

The purpose of baking the bread ahead of time is not not so it will be ready for rabid, post-fasting consumption, but so that the bread itself (like all of us) can spend time preparing for Christmas. How beautiful is that?

And so, I’ve been re-embarking on this old/new tradition this year. It’s been neat doing this and remembering just how hungry I was for Christological symbolism and typology in my life before finding Orthodoxy. My German self and my Orthodox self, it turns out, are not all that different.

And so, as I’ve had a spare moment here and there, I’ve done the prep work. Two days ago, I dried some pears–literally just threw some pear slices in the food dehydrator (but you could use an oven as well, or buy some if you know where to get them). And yesterday, I chopped and soaked the fruit. Today I’ll do the baking. And tomorrow, the wait begins 🙂

Without further ado, here is my recipe for Kletzenbrot.

4 comments:

    1. Yep–my Greek mother-in-law taught me to make Christopsomo. Hers is still better than mine, so I let her handle it 🙂 She makes enough for like four times the size of our family, plus additional ones for our friends. It’s definitely a Christmas staple!

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