If you mention the cinnamon star, especially if you do so around Christmas, everyone’s eyes are sure to light up. On the one hand, of course, this has to do with the effect of cinnamon itself, whose essential oils calm and relax us and whose scent carries us away to a seemingly long-forgotten childhood. But it seems to me even more important that the spice itself is deeply anchored in our cultural memory and that its possession has always been synonymous with security, prosperity and power.

For well into the 18th century, it was one of the most expensive spices in the Occident and only very few people could afford to waste their money on such a rare and valuable delicacy. For this reason, the average citizen could only look on with uncomprehending amazement at such excesses as when, in 1525, the Augsburg merchant Anton Fugger burned Charles V’s promissory notes in front of him in a fire of cinnamon sticks[1] – an unimaginable event even in these circles and an almost brazen sign of wealth, power and decadence.

 

We will return to Charles V later, as the first written mention of the cinnamon star is directly linked to his name. But first I would like to take you on a little journey through our history.

What hardly anyone knows is that cinnamon and numerous other spices have been used since the campaigns of Alexander the Great and that a lively trade with Asia already began in Roman antiquity. In the 10th century, triggered by a long period of peace and prosperity, this trade began to intensify and it was the lagoon city of Venice that was the first to seize the opportunities inherent in the spice trade and, as a trans-shipment point between the Orient and the Occident, became one of the leading powers of the Occident. However, not only the cinnamon and the even more important pepper trade went through Venice, but also spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cloves were traded and delivered to the farthest corners of Europe via middlemen.

Over the next centuries, the use of these spices was to become truly lavish, so much so that the French social historian Fernand Braudel was right to call it the “madness of spices”. By this he meant a mutual outbidding of the European ruling class in luxury and ostentation, which was particularly evident in the food. The more spices were used on the table, the tastier it seemed to contemporaries and the more respected the host was, and this led to such exaggerations as at the wedding of the Duke of Burgundy, at whose banquet the cooks consumed almost 200 kilograms of pepper (in addition to all the other fine ingredients, mind you!).

It is therefore not surprising that another group soon cast an eye on these wonders of the Orient – a group that, although dedicated to asceticism itself, was only too willing to break these rules for a higher purpose and use spices as lavishly as the nobility. For early on, it was the custom of monks to make exquisite baked goods to celebrate the birth of Christ, using the choicest and most expensive ingredients out of joy for the coming of the Lord. And without question, cinnamon was one of them! And so it is said that it was the monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Altzella[2] near Nossen who were the first to use this spice for their Christmas cakes in the middle of the 12th century and thus invented the cinnamon star.

 

However, there is no written record of this date and so there are other theories about the “true” birth of the cinnamon star. The German pastry researcher Irene Kraus, for example, dates its creation to the 16th century, because this is the first time that an exact date can be established, which brings us back to Charles V, as I mentioned earlier.

 

 

[1] Not least the Fugger researcher Richard Ehrenberg pointed out that this story is fictitious. In reality, it appears very early in a similar form in connection with various merchants and the reference to Anton Fugger was only artificially created at the end of the 17th century.
[2] Altzella Monastery (originally Cella or more precisely Cella Sanctae Mariae, Altenzelle, today Altzella) is a former Cistercian abbey.