It’s no secret that baking confections, cookies and fruit cakes have long been part of the feminine customs surrounding the winter holidays. So for our last gathering we offered a buffet of wildcrafted festive cookies and treats in honour of the season. In preparation I spent some time in search of old recipes that might have been created by our pagan ancestors, and I came across a beautiful tradition, called Mother’s Night, which is now almost entirely forgotten.
Taking place on what we now know as Christmas Eve, it was once dedicated to a group of feminine divinities revered by the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Roman peoples for hundreds of years. And guess what, it was celebrated with much feasting, drinking – and eating of cakes! Who knew?
Found on countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, the Mothers or Matrones were often associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s. Often depicted in a group of three, they were shown holding babies, baskets of fruit and grain, or the cornucopia, symbol of fertility and of the bounty of the earth. Scholars generally agree that the ‘cult’ of the Mother’s was a remnant of the earlier goddess worshipping peoples, and represented the feminine principle in nature.
In his account of the pagan calendar in 725 AD, the monk Bede, tells us that on Christmas Eve ” the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call Modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.” Bede leaves few details about what actually took place during these ceremonies, but modern pagan references (and here) indicate Mother’s Night traditionally kicked off the pagan celebrations of Yule – which from Germany to Scandinavia was celebrated with an enormous banquet featuring boar, goose and fish, nettle soup, mushroom dumplings, cheese pies, egg nog, mead and yes, plenty of honey cakes!
Which isn’t a surprise – honey cakes have been baked in honour of the goddess for thousands of years. From Judah, Egypt, Greece and Rome, women baked honey in cakes in tribute to Asherah, Ishtar, Artemis and Demeter, and many others, such as the Norse Goddess Freya and the Celtic goddess Brighid.
Today we’ve come to associate the fruit and spice cakes of Christmas with eastern spices like ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. But before these spices became common in the middle ages, Mother Night cakes were probably made with local dried fruit, nuts, forest roots and herbs. The earliest methods were likely very simple: flour and honey were mixed together and then the mixture would sit until naturally-produced yeasts caused it to rise.
It also pretty likely that cakes served on Mother’s Night were regarded as magical, ensuring fertility and good tidings for the new year. Today their many descendants such as the Pfeffernüsse, Lebkuchen and Springerle are still given as good luck tokens and are fashioned in the shapes of evergreen trees, stars, sun, and animals (symbols sacred to the fertility goddesses of old).
The Yule log cake served traditionally in France brings good fortune, as do the German cookies made in the shape of horns or a crescent (also an ancient symbol of the Goddess), which are heaped on plates for the Christmas Eve supper to ensure a bounteous new year.
Lekach, or Jewish honey cake is eaten on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in hopes of ensuring a sweet New Year, and in Italy the Panettone was given as presents to friends – and it was meant to be kept in the house to ensure good luck until the following Christmas!
So inspired by these magical baking traditions I decided to try my hand at what might have been a typical cake served by foremothers on “Mother’s Night”. And while a thousand flavour permutations were possible, I narrowed down a selection of ingredients that would have been readily available to my European ancestors at the time, such as stoneground rye flour, dark clover honey, hazelnuts, dried apples, cranberries and mint.
And while it was a bit primitive, it was fitting. Moist, dense, fruity and minty – it turned out to be a perfectly festive delight. And of course, I’ll be bringing it to Jennifer’s Winter Solstice party to ensure that near & dear are graced with good luck!
Granted it may have no actual similarity to the actual cakes of Mother’s Night, but nonetheless it is my way of remembering the many women who passed the traditions of sacred baking from generation to generation so that they still grace our holiday tables. To them I give thanks. But most of all, like my foremothers before me, I offer this cake to the forgotten Mothers and nature goddesses of old, whose cornucopias still flow with abundance and plenty. May their blessings shine upon you this season and throughout the coming new year.
Hail to the Mothers!
Hazelnut & Cranberry Peppermint Honey Cake
- 2 cups of rye flour (or spelt or wholewheat)
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking power
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup of unpasteurized honey
- 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
- 1/4 cup dried apples (chopped)
- 1 cup cranberries
- 1/4 cup of melted butter
- 5-6 springs of chopped mint or spearmint ( you can also used dried – approx. 2 ounces)
- Combine flour and honey in large bowl, mix well. Let sit overnight.
- Now add the rest of your ingredients into the batter and stir briskly, making sure it is well-blended.
- Pour dough into dusted and greased baking pan ( a round tin or bundt pan is nice.)
- Bake in preheated oven at 325 for for approximately 40 min.
- Let cool.
- Serve with drizzle of cranberry warmed honey!