It’s no secret that baking confections, cookies and fruit cakes have long been part of feminine customs surrounding the winter holidays. But one beautiful baking tradition is now almost entirely forgotten, and it served as the inspiration for this fruity, dense Mother’s Night Honey Cake. And while it may be a bit rustic, I tried to recreate what I imagined might have been a typical cake served on this ancient holiday, with the foods, nuts and herbs available at the time.
While we know it today as Christmas Eve, Mother’s Night was once dedicated to a group of feminine divinities. Their shrines, votive stones and altars have been found as far as Scotland, Spain and Portugal, Germania, Gaul, and Northern Italy – although in Scandinavia it was called Dísablót, the festival of the Disir, the tribal soul-mothers. And across Anglo-Saxon countries, from the 1st to 6th century, this holy night of Modrenacht honoured both the ancestral mothers of the clans and the great mothers of the rivers, mountains and lands.
Though traditions differ regionally, Mother’s Night generally revolved around leaving offerings, making prayers, giving thanks, topping a Modrenacht Tree with a star or light, gift-giving, feasting and drinking. Plenty of magical fruit and honey cakes were blessed, offered and eaten – ensuring fecundity and fruitfulness in the coming New Year!
Altars and shrines of the Mothers or Matrons are often located near rivers, mountains, sacred springs and trees. (see this link for more info) Often depicted in a group of three, holding babies, baskets of fruit and grain, they were associated with the fertility of 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, eggnog, mead – and plenty of honey cakes!
That cakes should be baked in honour of the Mothers is no surprise. Honey cakes are one of our oldest ceremonial foods, baked in honour of female divinities and fertility goddesses on festivals and sacred holidays (holy days) around the world. Early Christian women baked honey cakes in honour of Mary, and 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. These cakes were regarded as magical, bringing blessings of fertility, abundance and good tidings for the new year.
- Jewish Honey Cake
Today their many descendants are still with us. Jewish honey cake is eaten on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in hopes of ensuring a sweet New Year, the Yule log cake served traditionally in France brings good fortune, 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!
- Left: Medieval Gingerbread mold, Lebkuchen Cookie
The English word “cookie” is derived from the Dutch word “koekie” meaning little cake. These were also given for good fortune and today cookies 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). German cookies made in the shape of horns or a crescent (also an ancient symbol of the Goddess) are heaped on plates for the Christmas Eve supper to ensure a bounteous new year.
So inspired by all 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”. Before the middle ages 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. Also, the eastern spices like ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg we’ve come to associate with the fruit and spice cakes of Christmas were not commonly available before the middle ages either. So most likely these Mother Night cakes were likely made with honey, local dried fruit, nuts, forest roots and herbs.
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. I made two versions one with rye flour and one with spelt, one with less flour and one with more. The one below is made with dried mint, and 3 cups of spelt flour.
The result was more cake-like, less dense and dark than the first (pictured below). Made with two cups of rye flour, this version was darker and much moister. And while it was more like a fig roll than a cake, it was very delicious! So for this recipe, I split it down the middle and went with 2 1/2 cups.
And yes, both cakes are a bit primitive, but I don’t mind. I wouldn’t serve it to wow guests and family as the perfect holiday fruitcake – but 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.
I realize it may have no actual similarity to the actual cakes of Mother’s Night, but I nonetheless offer it up to all the forgotten mothers and nature goddesses of old. May their blessings shine upon all of us this season and throughout the coming new year.
Hail to the Mothers!
Mother’s Night Cranberry Peppermint Honey Cake
- Approx. 2 & 1/2 cups of rye flour or spelt or wholewheat.
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup of honey (little extra for drizzling)
- 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
- 1/4 cup dried apples (chopped)
- 1 cup cranberries (lightly chopped)
- 1/4 cup of melted butter
- 5-6 sprigs of chopped mint or spearmint ( you can also use dried – approx. 2 crumbled ounces)
- Combine flour and honey in a large bowl, mix well. Let sit overnight.
- The next day 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 a preheated oven at 325 for approximately 40 min.
- Let cool.
Serve with a drizzle of warmed honey!