stollen is Germany’s most traditional Christmas cake. Its history encompasses the entire debate about the religious dietary rules, sins, and indulgences of medieval times. Looking at today’s recipe heavy with butter, almonds, and dried fruit, it is hard to believe that stollen originated as a cake for the Advent period of fasting before Christmas. The cake’s shape is meant to symbolize the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling.
The first recorded mention of stollen dates back to 1329 in the city of Naumburg an der Saale, near Leipzig. Back then, strict Catholic regulations allowed the loaf to be made only from water, oats, and the local rapeseed oil. However, from the mid-fifteenth century on, dispensation from fasting laws in general became more common, since people were less and less inclined, for reasons of costs or taste, to replace butter or lard with local or imported oil. In the second edition of his Traité des jeûnes de l’église (1693), Père Louis Thomassin wrote that in 1475 Pope Sixtus IV authorized the use of butter in Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia during Advent for the next five years. However, most sources cite a dispensing Butterbrief or “butter letter” sent by Pope Innocent VIII to the duke of Saxony in 1491. This allowance was not exceptional but part of the regular sale of indulgences, which were often linked to the financing of building projects, including the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some historians believe that the papal letter simply gave official approval to a practice that was widespread anyway. Whatever the case, stollen developed into the now familiar treat rich with fruit and almonds and, in some modern industrial versions, overloaded with marzipan.