The Feast of St. Nicholas Opens Naughty or Nice Season

The feast day of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, is celebrated today, the sixth of December.


Notice that St. Nicholas travels with two assistants and only one of them is carrying treats…


Maybe it shouldn’t be taken for granted that piles of presents with YOUR name will  appear under the tree.


Maybe it’s time to admit that you slipped the dog slipped kale during dinner when no one was looking.  Or that you played video games your mother said were off-limits at your best friend’s house.


Looks like it’s too late.  So where is he going?

The good news is that there are eighteen more days to clean up YOUR act before Christmas!

The prints featured here were selected from Frantiska Doubrava’s suite of lithographs, Kolem vanoce [Around Christmas] (Brno: Edice Dobre umeni I, 1945).  Cotsen 46377.

Gingerbread Alphabets and Books: “Useful Knowledge by the Pound”


The front board of Neues Pfefferkuchen-ABC fuer artige Kinder. (Stuttgart: Lowes Verlag Ferdinand Carl, ca. 1907) Cotsen 72959.

After a really aggravating day, there probably isn’t a teacher alive who hasn’t wished that the human mind absorbed knowledge like a sponge soaks up water.  Crafty teachers devise strategies that just might make learning this or that easy and supportive publishers have been known to design children’s books that look like rewards for cooperating.  One of my favorites is the book above, whose binding looks like a tasty big cookie topped with split almond halves.  Its title?  Die neue Pfefferkuchen-ABC, which can be loosely translated as The New Gingerbread ABC (“pfefferkuchen” being another name for “lebkuchen,” the German spiced honeycakes topped with chocolate icing traditional at Christmas time).


The plate for the letter B in Neues Pfefferkuchen-ABC.

It’s an old ruse in many cultures to associate sweets with mastery of the letters of the alphabet.  For example, Alberto Manguel describes a medieval Jewish initiation rite in which the teacher wrote a passage from the Bible on a slate and read it aloud to his pupil. The boy repeated them and if he did it correctly, was allowed to eat the holy words once the slate was spread with honey as a reward (thanks to Lissa Paul for this anecdote).


The frontispiece to The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread: A Little Boy who lived upon Learning. (London: Printed for T. Carnan, 1782). Cotsen 6712.

A time-honored way of encouraging literacy in early modern England was to offer letters or hornbooks made of gingerbread as an inducement to learn their ABCs more quickly.   Above Gaffer Gingerbread invites children to spend their pocket money wisely on cakes that will “feed the Little Folks, who are good,/ At once with Learning and with Food.”


A mold for a cookie hornbook and a cast from it. The letters could easily be cut apart into little tiles for spelling practice. The letterforms suggest that the mold is probably not more than one hundred years old.

At home, the conscientious  gaffer took charge of inspiring his own little reluctant learner Giles, which was not all that difficult.   By profession a gingerbread baker, the gaffer made his son a special gilt-covered, sugary,  spicy “book” and presented it to him.


While the gaffer’s presentation of a table of two-letter syllables was novel, the truth is that any primer then contained such a chart, which helped children take a critical first step in learning to recognize and sound out combinations of letters.  The eighteenth-century references to gingerbread letters, alphabets and books I’ve found didn’t offer any evidence that such a thing was actually available.   Size may not have been the issue, as gingerbread kings and queens enjoyed at fairs could be quite large and detailed.  The real test was perhaps carving the letters deeply enough in the mold so that they would emerge from the oven sharp and legible.  Using a very stiff dough with no eggs or butter would have helped.

giles-with-bookHere Giles is shown with a hornbook in hand nowhere as large as the print of the one his father was supposed to have made for him.  Another curious discovery I made researching this post was that Cotsen’s 1782 edition of Giles Gingerbread doesn’t have the diagram of the gingerbread syllabary.  The 1782 edition is not missing any text, which wouldn’t be all that surprising for such a famous steadyseller (it was first published around 1765 by John Newbery, the stepfather of Carnan, the publisher of the Cotsen copy). The syllabary present in the earliest known edition of Giles Gingerbread circa 1766 in the British Library, which can be accessed via Eighteenth-Century Collections On-line.   Very few copies of any edition of Giles Gingerbread survive, having been read (not eaten) to pieces, so it is difficult to determine when and why the syllabary was dropped.

It was probably just a bit of complicated typesetting that could be dispensed with.  But it is amusing to imagine that children who had read Giles Gingerbread pestered their parents for hornbook just like it and the beleaguered publisher removed the offending passage to keep peace with gingerbread and pastry bakers all over Great Britain!


An antique mold for a gingerbread hornbook that looks something like the one Giles is holding.