Happy Winter Solstice! I’m sharing this recipe from the Gather Victoria Winter Magic ECookbook because it encapsulates the archetypal drama of the season – the rebirth of the light. And that meant plenty of cakes, cookies, and confections for the old winter witches like Frau Holle! Their symbols are very much alive in our holiday lore: a great star, flying sleighs, chimneys, sacks of gifts, and sweets for children.
In old Germanic folklore, Mother Holle or Frau Holle brings on winter when she shakes out her goose-down mattresses from her home in the clouds and the falling feathers turn into snow. Hence this Mother Holle Tart featuring little oatmeal dumpling “clouds” sprinkled with powdered sugar “snow” set in a rich and tangy wild cranberry and hawthorn berry curd.
Frau Holle is one of many winter witches found throughout Europe who flew through the sky in a heavenly sleigh or wagon during the 13 longest darkest nights of the year known as the“Rauhnächte“ (Wild Nights, Smoky Nights) or the Wild Hunt. From Frau Berchta or Frau Perchta in Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland, to La Befana in Italy and the Lutzelfrau in Sweden, their names mean “light” “bright” or “shining one. And on the days we know as Christmas Eve, New Year Eve, and Epiphany, special dishes like dumplings, oatmeal, and pancakes were left on doorsteps, beside the hearth, and even on the rooftops.
On the eve of Epiphany (in Old High German giberahta—meaning “shining forth” or “manifestation,”) they descend to earth visiting homes. Ceremonial tables laden with cakes, strudel, dumplings, pancakes, and cookies were laid out to welcome their arrival. Coming down chimneys carrying sacks of sweets and gifts, these witches blessed the new year with fertility and abundance. Well, only if you had been good – of course!
While Holle is best known from the Brothers Grimm Fairytales, she is believed to descend from a very old pre-Christian Mother Goddess Hulda or Holla. Known as both the Dunkle Großmutter (Dark Grandmother) and the Weisse Frau (White Lady) she associated with rebirth during the winter season. Holle too appears as an old woman in winter and is often represented by a star at Epiphany. In later Christianized variants of her folklore, she rides through the 13 dark nights leading a retinue of ghoulish spirits bringing whirlwinds and winter storms. “To ride with Holle–” was to go on a witches’ ride.
The origin of the Rauhnächt (Holy Nights, Wild Nights, Smoky Nights) or the Wild Hunt is believed to lie in the old lunar calendar which had only 354 days. The extra eleven days or twelve nights – are “outside of time” – and represent a transition from old to new, death to rebirth, chaos to order. This was experienced by those “without the Sight” as thunder and snowstorms. But for those acquainted with the old ways, the roaring thunder was the sound of Mother’s Holle’s or Frigga’s great spinning wheel as she wove the threads of the coming year.
Mother Holle was a Goddess of nature and wild places but also a goddess of hearth and home – and she loved to see things in order. Many legends of the Rauhnächt are associated with household domestic tasks (and their magic). It was especially important that spinning be done and laundry put away as evil spirits were thought to get entangled in all the disorder. The Rauhnächt was regarded as a time of standstill in nature, hence a time for resting. Therefore it was bad luck to do any housework during this period.
Each of the nights of the Rauhnächt was believed to hold the coming year (the first night standing for the month of January, the second for February, and so on) it was a critical time for magic and for divination. Everything on these nights, no matter how unimportant, had a magical use and meaning. Onions were used to forecast the weather, animals in the barn could speak at midnight and prophesy the future. (And those who had treated them badly in the last year would be punished!) Even the sunshine during each of the days had symbolic meaning.
This was also an important time to smoke out bad spirits, thus the term ‘Rau(h)nächte’ comes from rough (like wild), and from smoke or burning incense. During this eerie time, the veils between worlds were at their thinnest, the forests and moors swarmed with creatures: the Holzleute (wood folk), and Schratzln (forest goblins). To keep these otherworldly denizens at bay the home, barn and fields would be purified through the burning of herbs. Prayers were said as each room was”smoked”. Herbs most often used juniper and elder, (Holle’s sacred herbs) like mugwort, sage, laurel, thyme, lavender, or mistletoe.
Food offerings played a huge role during these nights. An early-13th century text states that “In the night of Christ’s Nativity they set the table for the Queen of Heaven, whom the people call Frau Holda, that she might help them”. Bread, cakes, pastries, porridges, and dumplings were left for Holle on the eve of December 24th, the beginning of the Rauhnacht (then known as Mothers Night), New Year’s Eve, and on the last night, Epiphany or 12th Night. Grains were very important offerings as were dairy, eggs, honey, dried fruits, foods believed to symbolize fertility, and the sun. These dishes were also consumed in communal feasts and leftovers placed under fruit trees to ensure they gave a good crop.
On New Year’s Eve, the sound of Holle “Rummelpott” can be heard from afar. In North Germany village youth dressed up as the elemental spirits and creatures called Hulklen (a word related to Holle, Holda, Hulda) go house to house bang on pots to create (rumbling, rumbling) crying “Fru, mak de Dör op, de Rummelpott wants in” announcing that Holle is on her way. This leaves the housewives ample warning to set out offerings of apples, nuts, special cakes, and cookies!
In the Gather Victoria Ecookbook Winter Magic Holiday Edition I’ve delved more deeply into the lore of old winter witches from Germanic and Northern European tradition – mostly because this is where the tradition of “Christmas Baking” originates! I’ve made cakes, tarts, spiced cookies, and confections inspired by mother goddesses, sun maidens, crone goddesses, and deer goddesses which fill old-world holiday folklore.
This year, following themes of darkness into light, I’ve paired dark chocolate and white chocolate cakes, tarts and cookies. I made Dark Chocolate Chestnut Cake for the Lutzelfrau who was the dark counterpart to the better known St. Lucia, the maiden of light. The old witches were often associated with giving out chestnuts and nuts in general while red berries symbolized the rebirth of life.
For my Frau Holle Tart, I used wild bog cranberries (every witch and goddess of nature needs a touch of the wild) but storebought fresh cranberries will work just fine. Originally the recipe also called for Autumn Olive berries but this year I substituted with hawthorn berries. While it’s a milder berry I love its red warming, heart-centered energy, good food to welcome the sun. If you’re not familiar with hawthorn berries check out this post. If you can’t get your hands on any, you can substitute cherries or raspberries (frozen or fresh).
Mother Holle Cloud Tart w/ Cranberry & Hawthorn Berry Curd
Oatmeal Crust & Clouds
- 1½ cups instant porridge oats
- 1 ½ cups plain flour
- 1 cup raw sugar
- ¼ cup dark muscovado sugar
- 1 tsp cardamom ground
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- ¾ tsp baking soda
- 1 cup of salted butter softened
- 1 egg beaten
Cranberry & Hawthorn Berry Curd
- 1 cup cranberries
- 1 & 1/4 cup of hawthorn berries (or cherries/raspberries)
- 1 cup sugar
- Rind and juice of 1 orange (about 1/2 cup)
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. allspice
- 1 tsp cardamom
Preheat the oven to 400°F and grease a 9 or 10 inch tart tin with a removable base.
Put the oats, flour, sugars, cardamom, ginger and baking soda into large mixing bowl. Rub the butter through the dry ingredients until well combined, then mix in eggs and work the mixture until it begins to form a doughy lump. Don’t overwork it!
Cut one third of the dough away and set it aside. Press the remaining dough into the greased tin, evenly covering the bottom and up the sides up the sides.
Spread the cooled curd (see directions below) into the prepared tin, smooth the top and then break up small pieces of the reserved dough and place your little “clouds” over the top.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden. Cool in the tin completely before removing. Dust with icing sugar.
Cranberry & Hawthorn Berry Curd
Put cranberries, hawthorn berries, sugar and orange juice and peel in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until cranberries have popped and and hawthorn berries have softened, about 10 minutes
Transfer to medium mesh sieve and press cooking liquid and solids into a bowl. Drain off liquid and put aside. Whisk the butter into the warm berry mixture.
Put eggs and egg yolks into a bowl and beat lightly. Slowly whisk a cup of warm cranberry liquid into the eggs to temper, then add your berry mixture and whisk together.
Return mixture to a pot and cook over low heat until nearly bubbling and thickened, about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly before using.