Baking traditions: The Weckmann

Baking traditions : The Weckmann

The classic Weckmann is made of yeast dough and is shaped by hand. But what are the origins of this Rhineland tradition?

It’s currently their peak season: the Weckmann has been back on bakeries’ shelves for several weeks now in all sorts of variations, because a Weckmann is not just a Weckmann. As well as the classic, with a white clay pipe, there is also, for example, the health-conscious non-smoker with a lollipop in his hand, the gender neutral “Weckperson” from the organic supermarket and the Weckmann with chocolate chips or sugar sprinkles.

For Franz-Josef Gilgen, managing director of Gilgens Bakery and Confectioners, only the classic Weckmann comes out of the bakery. “He has neither chocolate trousers nor sugar icing,” says Gilgen. But he always has exactly six raisins: four for the buttons and two for the eyes. And a clay pipe, of course, which the company buys from the Westerwald.

It is relatively expensive, but without it, a Weckmann is not a Weckmann, says the managing director. “It is also key for me, that it is a yeast dough.” The Weckmann are all made by hand from a long piece of dough formed into small men in several steps. “They are all unique,” says Gilgen. “There are also some among them who couldn’t become Mr Universe.”

But why do the dough men exist and how did they become pipe smokers? According to Georg Cornelissen, head of the language research department at the Rhineland Regional Association’s Institute for Regional Studies and Regional History, all sorts of hand-shaped breads used to be baked for St Nicholas, Christmas and New Year. “Breads that had a special shape: there were animals that looked like deer and were also so-called; in the regional dialect this was a Hierz. The bread formed in the shape of a man was therefore called a Hierzemann.” This dialect term is still used in some areas of the Rhineland, but in most bakeries today they are sold as a Weckmann.

Alois Döring reports in his book “Rheinische Bräuche durch das Jahr” (“Rhineland Traditions throughout the Year”) that at the start of the 20th century, gifts at St Nicholas not only included nuts, apples and pears from the garden but also the Weckmann with his raisin eyes and pipe.

In the past, children tried to smoke for the first time with the pipe and filled it with camomile tea, chestnut leaves or the bark of juniper bushes, Döring knows. The smaller ones blew soap bubbles. Today, there are more toys on offer and warnings against smoking are ever-present, so some bakers dispense with the pipe.

Instead of lollipops, they could also put a small flute in the dough, as this is historically documented. “The Weckmann’s clay pipe had clay flutes as forerunners in the 16th century. Historical evidence from the early modern period proves there was a custom of including small clay objects in hand-formed breads on St Nicholas Day,” Döring writes. These bakers’ flutes were produced in the Westerwald until the 1970s.

During the 20th century, the celebratory baking changed from being for St Nicholas. Today, the Weckmann are handed out during the St Martin’s Parades and are supposed to remind us of the generosity of St Martin, who shared his coat with a beggar.

This is why Weckmann production runs at full pelt around St Martin’s Day in the Gilgens bakery. According to Franz-Josef Gilgen, 2000 to 3000 items are easily baked each day. At the moment it is around 850 per day, says the managing director. Production started in the bakery in September. There will be Weckmann in his shops until St Nicholas. After that they will disappear from display until the next season.

(Original text: Bettina Köhl, Hannah Schmitt. Translation: kc)

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