The Feast of the Assumption of Mary (Mariä Himmelfahrt) commemorates the Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven. Assumption Day is celebrated on or around August 15 in many countries, particularly in parts of Europe and South America. This day is a public holiday in the German states of Saarland and some parts of Bavaria. This August feast day is the oldest of all the festivals of Mary. The annual commemoration of Mary is connected with the ancient traditional belief that her body did not decay but soon after the burial was united again with her soul and was taken up to Heaven.
The universal belief of Mary's assumption has been framed in ancient legends and stories. The most famous of these legends is that Mary’s tomb was opened on the request of St. Thomas, the tomb was found empty, and thus the Apostles concluded that her body was taken up to Heaven. In lieu of her body, it was said that there was a wonderful smell of flowers and herbs.
In pre-Christian times the season from the middle of August to the middle of September was observed as a period of thanksgiving for the successful harvest of grains. Many symbolic rites were aimed toward the assurance of prosperous weather for the reaping of the fall fruits, vegetables and grains and for winter planting. Some elements of these ancient cults are now connected with the feast and season of the Assumption. All through the Middle Ages the days from August 15 to September 15 were called 'Our Lady's Thirty Days' (Frauendreißiger) in the German-speaking sections of Europe. Many Assumption shrines even today show Mary clothed in a robe covered with ears of grain.
Popular legends ascribe a character of blessing and goodness to 'Our Lady's Thirty Days' and all food produced during this period is especially wholesome and good, and will remain fresh much longer than at other times of the year.
The fact that herbs picked in August were considered of great power in healing occasioned the medieval practice of the 'Blessing of Herbs' on Assumption Day. The Church thus elevated a popular belief of pre-Christian times into a religious observance and gave it the character of a Christian rite of profound meaning.
There are a number of special traditions about trees and plants on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary and my personal favorite tradition on this day is the collection and benediction of herbs and plants. Some people will go out into the fields and meadows to collect herbs with medicinal and culinary properties, or they will collect culinary herbs from their gardens. Popular herbs to collect include agrimony, chamomile, clover, mugwort, mullein, St John's wort, tansy, thyme, valerian, verbena, wormwood, and yarrow.
Each herb in the Herb Bundle has a distinct taste but also a special meaning and/or purpose. The rose, for example, represents Mary, lavender is known to soothe, mint is a herb with refreshing qualities, chamomile has healing properties etc. There are no 'official rules' for Herb Bundles, but the number of herbs (and flowers) that one puts into a bundle should always be a 'magic number':
3 – the number 3 represents 'Trinity'
7 - the number 7 represents 'Days of Creation' or the 'Sacraments'
9 - the number 9 represents 3x3, meaning three times 'Trinity'
12 - the number 12 represents the number of Apostles or the 'Tribes of Israel'
After the benediction of the herbs, some herb bundles are placed by alters and others are fixed to the walls of houses and stalls. And although there is no such thing as one specific culinary tradition for Assumption Day, there are many dishes that can be prepared with those healthy August herbs.
So, in honor of Mary's special feast day, I decided to bake a Tear & Share Herb Bread with lots of herbs from my kitchen garden – the soft ones, like Italian parsley, chives and basil, are folded into the yeast dough, while the sturdy ones, like sage, thyme and rosemary graze the top of this delicious, sharable bread.
Tear & Share Herb Bread - Kräuterbrot
- 500g strong white flour, plus extra for kneading (around here that’s 'backstarkes Weizenmehl Type 550')
- 21gr fresh yeast OR 7g sachet dried yeast
- 125ml whole milk (I use milk with 3.5% fat content)
- 125ml water
- 1 tbsp molasses (around here that’s ‚Zuckerrübensirup‘)
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 30g butter, room temperature, plus extra for greasing
- 3 tbsp fresh, soft herbs, chopped finely (such as Italian parsley, basil, chives or dill)
- a few small branches of rosemary, thyme, oregano or a few sage leaves, for garnish
- good olive oil suitable for baking
- a few flakes of coarse sea salt (optional)
- a springform pan, 24 cm; butter and dusted with flour, excess flour shaken out
- Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.
- Heat the 125ml of water and the the 125ml of milk in a saucepan over a low heat until lukewarm, add the molasses and the yeast and stir until dissolved.
- Make a well in the center of the flour, add the milk/yeast mixture, cover with a bit of flour, cover with a tea towel and let rest for about 15 minutes.
- Uncover the bowl, add the salt and the butter and knead for a good 8 minutes until the dough comes together and turns soft and elastic.
- Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover loosely with a tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm place for about 60 minutes or until doubled in size.
- When the dough has doubled in size, tip it onto a floured surface and flatten with the palms of your hands. Spoon the chopped soft herb mixture on top and knead until evenly incorporated. Sprinkle with a little extra flour if it becomes sticky.
- Place the dough in the oiled bowl and cover again with the tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm place for another hour.
- When the dough has risen again, tip it onto your lightly floured work surface one more time.
- Divide the dough into nine (at this point you can use a scale to make sure your dough is equally diveded into 9 portions) and shape into neat balls by pulling the dough from the outside of the ball and pushing into the center. Turn over with the ends underneath. Place the rolls in a circle in the prepared springform pan. Cover loosely with lightly oiled kitchen wrap and leave to prove in a warm place for a good 15 minutes OR until the rolls are puffed, risen and 'have come together'.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C convection).
- Brush the top of each roll lightly with olive and place a small sage leaf or small herb branch on top. Brush with more olive oil (sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt - optional) and bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until risen and golden-brown. If the bread browns too quickly, cover loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes of baking.
- Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool a little before serving & sharing. Serve with good farm fresh butter OR with extra good olive oil and coarse sea salt for dunking.
Paintings and other artworks depicting Mary's Assumption often depict Jesus or God, representing heaven, at the top. Early Christians or other people are usually in the lower part of the paintings and represent life on earth. The paintings often show Mary making her journey to heaven. She may be accompanied by angels or cherubs who serve as her guides.
The above painting depicts Mary's Assumption and I took the picture last week at the St. Michael's church in Luxembourg City, Luxemburg (Méchelskierch, Stad Lëtzebuerg).
The picture below depicts the inside of St. Mary of the Assumption church in Cologne (St. Mariä Himmelfahrt, Köln).
(Ad/Werbung): my recipe for the Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the year, I present different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.
The various recipes of my series can be found here:
- in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE);
- for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE);
- for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE);
- for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE);
- for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
- for St. Christopher's Day (St. Christophorus), these energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
- and, today for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.