December 8, 2020

Christmas bread baked in a variety of shapes, designs, and flavours is central to the celebration of the holiday in many areas of the world. 

Far beyond being a vital source of sustenance, bread has clear significance, seen in phrases such as to “break bread” – which signifies integration, putting aside differences, and sharing a meal. In Eastern Europe today, foreign dignitaries are still often offered bread and salt, symbolizing the formal promise of hospitality. 

On Christmas, this ritual significance is magnified. Similar themes exist across diverse cultural traditions. 

  • In Germany, stollen – which very closely resembles the infamous fruitcake that we might see sold in Canadian supermarkets – is a type of bread topped with sugar icing and filled with often spirit-soaked candied nuts and fruits. In addition to each family having its own rich tradition associated with the bread, stollen has a well-documented history itself, related to its Dresden origin. It is also known as weihnachtsstollen (after Christmas) or christstollen (after Christ). 
    • Other cultural variants of sweet or fruit bread include the Italian panettone or pandoro, the Norweigan julekake, the Greek christopsomo, the Russian krendl, the Polish keks, and theCzech/Slovak vánočka. 
    • The vánočka also has much ritual significance, with each braid standing for a natural element or a positive quality – and with the collective symbolism coming to represent part of the Nativity story. There are many rituals around creating the bread itself, one being that its Christmas Eve preparation must be undertaken in complete silence while wearing a white apron and headscarf. Each family member got a small plain version of the vánočka, as did all animals on the farm, in order to be protected from evil. 
  • In Poland, as well as in other countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia, ritual bread takes the form of an oplatek wafer. Similar to the bread that becomes the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition, this wafer is embossed with Christmas-related religious images. The ritual sees the eldest member of the family break off a piece of the wafer, passing it to another family member. As each person receives a piece of oplatek, they are wishing the family member next to them well, and so on around the circle until everyone has a piece. This represents the unity of the family, in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the past several decades, this meaning has been stretched beyond just the family unit to different social settings where a holiday meal is shared. 
  • In Serbia, as well as in other parts of the neighbouring region, the česnica is a round, somewhat simply made and plainly decorated bread. Inside the bread, however, certain items are placed – a coin for wealth, a tiny piece of a cornel tree for health, other small wooden animal figures, and one bean or grain, etc. for a plentiful harvest (or success in other, more common modern endeavours). At dinner, all present say prayers and exchange greetings. The bread is rotated three times before being carefully broken. Various other divination practices also involve the česnica, changing depending on the location, but all focusing on traditional peasant life.
  • In Ukraine, the braided kolach is a central part of the Christmas Eve dinner table, even though it is not eaten until Christmas Day (in accordance with the Nativity fast). Kolach comes from the word “kolo” or “circle,” symbolizing eternity. The braids have a specific religious meaning, that of the three signifying the Holy Trinity. If its shape is round, the kolach may actually have three kolaches in total. A candle in the middle of the top layer may also be added in this form. Altogether, it symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. 

1 Comment »

  1. […] Ukrainian customs include kolach, special braided bread – which is also similarly essential to many other traditions across Europe – along with a didukh, or carefully gathered sheaf of wheat. Kutia (or wheat cooked with barley […]

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