As we prepare to enthusiastically welcome a new year (and say good riddance to 2020), I would love to revisit a wonderful recipe for celebratory cakes. In this piece that originally published in 2014, Molly Taylor-Poleskey notes that honey cakes commemorated the ending of the plague and the arrival of a new era. Let us all toast spiced cakes and lebkuchen to bring in the new year! –R.A. Kashanipour
By Molly Taylor-Polesky
In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.
This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7). David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)
The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.” The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.
Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen” (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.
In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.
Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.
 Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.