Pentecost (Pfingsten) has been celebrated in the Christian church since the third century, always on the 7th Sunday after Easter (Ostersonntag). The English word ‚Pentecost‘ and the German ‚Pfingsten‘ are both derived from the Greek ‚pentecoste‘, fifty, hence it’s celebrated the 50th day after Easter.
In Germany, Pentecost is a high church holiday and is celebrated on two successive days, Whit Sunday (Pfingstsonntag) and Whit Monday (Pfingstmontag), as they say in Britain. Churches often hold open-air services on these two days. People come together to celebrate outdoors, because summer is on its way. The celebrated date changes each year depending on what date Easter Sunday falls on, but is typically observed in late May or early June. This year, the feast day of the Holy Spirit, as it’s often referred to, falls on June 9.
This holiday commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Since Pentecost is so firmly rooted in Germany’s Christian traditions, the second day of Pentecost is a public holiday in all German states. Post offices, banks, stores and other businesses are closed.
In contrast to Christmas or Easter there are only few traditions at Pentecost. However, there are a number of charming local and regional customs tied to this springtime feast. Already during the Middle Ages, noble and royal marriages, knights’ jousting tournaments, riding competitions and aristocratic events were held with great pomp on Pentecost.
Celebrations vary depending on what part of Germany you visit. It’s not uncommon to see areas of the country decorated in beautiful red flowers to signify the fire of the holy spirit, as well as birch branches, with birch often associated with both the planting of the Pentecost tree as well as the Pentecost wreath. Churches are often decorated with young birch twigs (Pfingstbaum) and a lot of families like to go for a walk or extended hike. In some parts of Germany they light large bonfires (Pfingstfeuer).
In rural areas, Pentecost was when the cattle were led out to the fields for the first time after the long winter. There would often be a specially decorated ‚Pentecost ox‘ (Pfingstochse) leading the cattle herd into the hills. Some of these traditions have already died out or become rare. Yet as a celebration of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is still a festival of hope, joy and the beginning of summer.
In past times, popular superstitions about Pentecost revolved around certain herbs, plants and even flowers. For example, the calendula (Ringelblume) was believed to have curative powers if picked on Whitsunday morning at sunrise – or that face-washing with Pentecost dew would prevent freckles. It was also hoped that water (Pfingstwasser), scooped up from wells or brooks at this time would heal the sick, or that lighting one’s candle from a Pentecost bonfire (Pfingstfeuer) would dispel evil spirits.
There is one tradition, a culinary one, that I particularly like, it it the so-called ‚Allgäu Bread Birds‘ (Allgäuer Brotvögel). The Allgäu is one of the most popular holiday regions in Germany, it stretches from the Danube to the Alps and its attractions include Neuschwanstein Castle in Southern Germany. As children we used to spent all our summer holidays there - this particular region is still very close to my heart. And it is home to one very lovely and fun Pentecost tradition.
It was customary to bake so-called Bread Birds (or Doves) for Pentecost. They are akin to sweet rolls shaped like birds – the tradition was to bake the birds around Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) when they would be pulled through a hatch in the nave of the church, they remained there until Pentecost, when the hatch was opened and the bread birds were sent flying from the nave onto the congregation. Obviously, the birds were meant as a symbols of the Holy Spirit descending upon the churchgoers.
However, it seems that the somewhat unruly behaviour of the worshippers, when they tried to catch one of the treasured birds, caused irritation and therefore was officially prohibted in the year 1803, as a ‚mindless and inexpedient ceremony‘. Nonetheless, this wonderful tradition has not only been kept alive in some regions of Bavaria but has been revived in some Parishes that nowadays distribute bread birds to children attending mass on Pentecost.
I have come across sweet as well as savory (bretzel dough) versions of these birds and while both are delicious, I will present the sweet version today. Do keep in mind that these birds were originally meant to represent doves and that the following recipe is a good-mannered interpretation of the original, but steeped in a fun tradition nevertheless.
Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel)
(for about 12 birds)
For the Dough
- 500g strong bread flour, plus some to work the dough (around here 'Type 550')
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
- 75g superfine baking (caster) sugar
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed
- 1/2 cup warm milk (I use whole milk 3.5%)
- 1 egg (L), free-range or organic, lightly beaten
For the Decoration (optional)
- 1 egg yolk mixed with a bit of cold water
- a few rasins or currants (cut in half if too large)
- some pearl sugar (available at bakeware stores or online)
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Form a well. Add the butter to the well.
- Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, pour the milk mixture into the well, add the egg. Using the dough hooks of your mixer, mix until you have a soft dough, then knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
- Place in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Turn the risen dough out onto your work surface. Knead briefly and divide into 12 pieces.
- To shape birds, roll each piece into a 30cm rope.
- Tie each rope into a knot. Cut one end a few times with scissors to form tail feathers. Tuck in the other end of the nose to form the beak.
- Brush with egg wash and insert raisins or currants for eyes. Add some pearl sugar (optional).
- Place on the prepared baking sheet. Cover loosely and let rise again, about 15 minutes.
- Bake in your pre-heated oven at 180° C (160°C convection oven) for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown (depending on the size of the birds).
- These are best served the day they were made.
Who knows, these Allgäu Bread Birds might become a tradition in your house around Pentecost. They are quite delicious, all warm and soft, fresh from the oven – maybe with a bit of good butter and local honey or homemade jam slathered all over them. After all, tradition lives on in our interpretations.
The above pictures were taken today at the Krefeld flax market at Burg Linn ('Linn Castle') where at Whitsun well over 300 exhibitors (I believe there were 313 today) present their guilds and craftmanship. The history of the flax market dates back to the 12th century, to the lord of the castle, Knight Otto von Linn. Even then there was a lively market - not only for flax - that quickly developed into one of the most important markets in the region. Merchants sold and traded flax and linen, iron, wood, leather and wicker goods, stones, pottery, textiles, horse harness, grain and later, also meat and bread.
Today if you visit the market, you can watch fossil grinders, barbers and blue printers, turners, falconers, felters, flax processors, glass blowers, hand weavers, ceramists, leather punchers. Ropes and soap boilers. Stick maker, bag maker, weaver and cylinder maker. And many more. A must see, if you are in the area. For more info on the market, pls take a look here.
Happy Pentecost! - Frohe Pfingsten!