Tuesday, December 05, 2006


One reason European types give presents around the solstice is the works of a Bishop in Smyrna in the Fourth Century CE. He was acustomed to provide poor girls with a dowry. No girl without a dowry was likely to be married. As Melissa said: "Oh. cool!"

Today is the eve of St Nicholas day which the Dutch celebrate, as many Americans do Christmas, with gifts and food and lots and lots of Koekjes! Sinterklaas arrives by ship from Spain with his grey-white horse, Schimmel, and Zwarte Piet, his trusty kickside. They visit every house. Black Pete knocks and throws in a handful of peppernotten (gingernuts to the Brits) just to get everybody's attention. The usual recital of naughty and nice with presents ranging from coal to straw to something a kid would like whether useful or otherwise. For the fascinating tale of this tall dignified cleric's transformation into the jolly old elf of Madison Avenue's Dream follow the link above and here.

To make peppernotten according to Dutch and Belgian Cooking (Galahad Books 1973):
Preheat oven to 350ºf. Mix 2½ cups flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder, ½ cup Brown sugar, ¼ teaspoon each of anise, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Add one egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of water. Butter two baking sheets. Knead all ingredients into a soft ball. form into about 90 marble sized balls and place on sheets. Bake 20 minutes or until rather hard.
Somehow my flour is always too dry for this to work. So I add a whole egg and about a half cup of water. Add it little by slow so you wont use too much. When it is right the dough will clump together rather than stick to the sides of the bowl. I also double the quantity of the spices and replace some of the four with a cup of whole wheat and a ½ cup of rye flour. The result is not particularly sweet but, lord, they are too easy to eat!
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  1. The custom of a dowry is very interesting. What it basically boiled down to was, there was more women available for marriage, than there were men available to marry them. Thus the woman's family had to pay to get a man to marry the woman.

    Given that men's trades in the day tended to make their life nasty, brutish, and short, this was unsurprising. The other alternative to women's families paying for a husband was the alternative that Islam (or early Mormanism) took, which was to allow multiple wives. This handily dealt with the issue of a surplus of potential wives. For some reason, however, this simple and practical solution to the issue of too many women and not enough men never took hold in Christian culture. I'm not sure why, other than perhaps because Christianity emerged during the long decline and increasing impoverishment of the Roman Empire, and thus few men would have had the ability to support more than one wife in those turbulent and nasty times...

  2. Hmmm,
    But the system of dowries also reinforced the class/caste/ system that was created by agriculture.
    What I find curious here is that the push of Christianity for the first three or four hundred years was focused on improving the lot of the poor. If only because it was only the slaves and the poor who joined the Church. Once the religion was adopted by the Empire the Church changed its focus to the nurturing of the rich and the well born (sorry for the oxymoron). Dowries affirmed the difference between rich and poor. They also reinforced the view of all life as property. Nicholas was caught in the transition. He tried te ease the lot of the poor before the Church was able to afford the establishment of nunneries -- another solution to the 'problem' you describe.
    Thank god penguins and monkeys don't mess with that stuff.