In the time of the Mad King Rudolph II, in the time when Zlata Ulitsa was full of alchemists trying to make gold, and diviners and other sorts of magicians, there lived a baker, in Prague, a woman named Baruška.
She made wonderful things. Her dumplings were so light that a breeze might blow them away, and breads so delicious that you would want to eat even the steam. Her noodles turned out tender, and never mushy, even if you overcooked them. Her little cakes called small boys from all over the city to gather outside the door of her bakery in hopes of even a spoiled one, but they were always disappointed unless they had a penny, or it was a feast day when she made batches just for the reciting of a holy text. But pernik (PEAR – nyeek) were her specialty.
What are pernik? Why a hard spicebread cookie, of course! Ah, nothing says “Vesele Vanoce!” (Happy Christmas) like pernik, and no special day is complete without these special cakes: for a first communion, a little rope of dough folded like the arms of a child at prayer, for mothers, a flower shape, for a hope of returned affection, a heart, for a birth, a cup, for a special child, a coiled bit of dough turned into a snail or snipped into a squirrel, for a sealed business deal, dukati, shaped and stamped like coins with a gold foil top.
…but it is the holy days of the Christmas month, where pernik flood from the Christmas markets, and spring forth on every table and are offered in every Holy Corner of every house.
The baking begins as the harvest comes in, when there is grain and honey enough, and the traders have been bringing sugar and spices in the good weather. For pernik keep! If you have a good tight box with a wax seal you can keep them through an entire winter and a smart baker takes advantage of this to make plenty for the season of celebrations.
So many are needed: wreaths for each Sunday in advent, molded cookies of the good saint for Mikulaš, (the night of good St. Nicholas), and of the Sašak’s bag that he pops bad children into, and the dukati that the Andelička, the good angel that accompanies the saint, gives to good children. There are pernik that are hung on the green branches of trees in the house. There are the cookies for Little Christmas, the epiphany, Tri Kralu, the day of the Three Good Kings, which in that day were beginning to be made into tiny houses.
…but most of all there are the pernik that represent the Holy Family, Father Josef, Mother Maria and the baby, Jesulatko. Also, sheep and shepherds, angels, cows, the little donkey for the Mother to ride and all the people of the town who come to see the new little one. All make a village in a home’s Holy Corner to remind us of the Great Miracle.
…and Baruška made all of these! Her people seemed to walk on their own. The stars glittered and twinkled. Dukati shone. The sheep looked as though they could be sheared for their wool and the cows to give milk. The little puppies and kittens that tumble in the straw of every stable everywhere, seemed as though if you but extended a hand that they would roll to their backs and invite tummy rubs! The Holy Family, with the sweet smile of the Mother and the protective stance of the Father, spoke to the hearts of parents everywhere.
So Baruška had a very successful year, and decided to move her bakery closer to the Christmas market in the Old Town Square. There was a building down the street from the corner of the House at the Bell that had once been the kitchen for a large inn, but had been sold separately when the decrepit inn itself was torn down for new houses.
Baruška looked it over carefully. It had a room upstairs where she could live, several ovens and a large cooking hearth besides, and was good solid stone, all around, so she purchased it. All during the spring she cleaned and had workmen in to clean and examine the chimneys, re-mortar the solid steps to the upper floor, install good windows of glass, lamps and new doors. There were even stone sinks with a water fountain and a large cauldron nearby so that clean-up was simple. She had new work tables and tight, wax-seal boxes built in the early summer, then moved in and began learning her new equipment.
By harvest she was ready to begin the holiday baking. She began with hearts and stars and flowers, then went on to heaps and heaps of dukati. Box after box of cookies stacked up! She went on to make sheep and cows and kittens, and then started on the figures of the townsfolk and kings.
…but something strange began to happen.
Baruška usually left at least one batch of pernik to cool on the work tables when she went upstairs to sleep, all covered with cloths, but when she came down in the morning the cloths were all rucked up and not a cookie had a head!
The first time, she figured that she hadn’t locked the doors properly, the 2nd time that perhaps a window hadn’t been closed, but when it happened again and she knew everything was locked up tight she started to worry.
Baruška talked first to her neighbors, asking if there was perhaps someone unreliable who might have come into her shop, or perhaps some lads who might think it a fine joke, but they knew nothing.
Next she spoke to the Watch to ask them to keep an eye on her shop, and to some of the little boys that would come on feast days for their special pernik, but none of them had seen anything and even watching for a week, saw nothing disturbed, and she fed them the spoiled cookies, so that they would have a reason to keep watch!
…but none of the cookies that she left overnight had heads!
Then she thought, “Well! The last batch I will make tonight with be Sašak bags and see who can eat the heads off of those!”
…but in the morning, one of her wax-sealed boxes had been popped open and none of the cookies within had heads!
Baruška asked the priest to come and bless her shop, and still the cookies were headless! She was looking at her holiday season being ruined and all the pernik and hard work wasted if she couldn’t figure out what was happening!
So finally, she went up to Zlata Ulica and paid some of the King’s diviners to come and see if they could figure out what was happening. She had to pay them in pernik, too! They said that there were spirits around her bakery, but they couldn’t get rid of them. She would have to bargain with them herself!
On the night before the All Soul’s Feast Day, Baruška laid in plenty of wood by the hearth and made the chimney-corner comfortable, and set a dark-lantern with a thick candle on the bench beside her and settled in to wait.
The Old Town Hall clock struck 6 and then 7 and then 8pm and she was nodding. It struck 9 and 10 and 11pm and she never heard it, having dozed off after her long day’s work, but then she slipped on the bench and woke herself and shook herself awake.
She waited and heard the Watch go by, crying the ½ past…
Then, “Bong, bong, bong”, the clock began the chime and as she counted she knew the midnight hour was near. It bonged 12 times. The rooster on the clock cried, “Kikirikiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” and she knew the hour had come.
…and then there was a light on the other side of the work table!
It was a man and a woman…all dressed in houpellandes, court clothes of a couple of centuries past, standing at the table.
…and the man reached out and moved the cover cloth, broke the head off of a cookie and ate it!
Her words fell out of her head and scattered across the floor and she gaped at the silvery figures as they broke off more heads and ate them.
“What?” she finally spluttered. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”
The woman looked up at her, popped another head into her mouth and said, “We’re eating pernik, of course. Good cookies!”
“…but those are *my* baking, my life, you’re eating! You can’t DO that!”
The man ate another head off a cookie and said, “Well, we are, Little Mother. What do you think you can do about it? Very, good baking, too. You do well!”
Baruška spluttered for a bit and said, “Not enough well, if my pernik have no heads. Who will buy them then? WHY are you eating my cookies, and why only the heads?”
So, they sighed and told her the story (and kept eating cookies…). They had been young and foolish and fallen in love and started to meet for sheer “friskiness” in the inn. The inn-keeper figured out what they were doing and threatened to tell their families unless they gave him extra money. They laughed and told him they did not care and wouldn’t pay him extra.
He was so angry that he took an axe and cut off their heads the next time they were sleeping after their fun! He stripped their bodies and threw them in the street, because they could not be identified that way. He sold their clothing in another city and buried their heads under the steps of the inn kitchen, building steps of stone to the 2nd floor so that none would see what he had done.
“So, you see, good baker, we have no heads, and cannot go to either hell or purgatory without them! That innkeeper, has long since gone to hell for our murder, though we must stay here. ”
Baruška felt sorry for them, not a lot, because they were sinners, but they had paid far too high a price on earth for something that they would still pay for in purgatory…if they ever got there. “Is there a way that I can help you, so you will stop eating my pernik?” she asked.
“If you can find our heads to take to the priest so that they can be buried in consecrated ground, at last, we will be able to leave this earth,” the woman said.
“I’ll miss your good cookies, Little Mother, no matter whether I go to purgatory or hell!” said the man.
…and the clock bonged again, and the rooster cried and the spirits vanished.
Baruška shook her head over the folly of the young and silly, but after she talked to the Watch, she had workmen take out the steps, dig up the skulls and re-build the stair. She took the heads to the priest, and since she was willing to pay for a funeral mass, he buried them in the churchyard with an admonition to sinners, all. Baruška felt sorry enough for the two that she also paid for masses for their souls, so that they would escape hell and go to purgatory, when in some eon they might be saved for heaven, because she was a generous woman and had been young and foolish herself, perhaps.
…and each All Soul’s she baked pernik in the shape of a young woman and man in houpellandes and gave them to the young and silly with the story of her Headless Gingerbread. She died a wealthy woman at a great age because of her charity, and I am sure that she was one of the saints that walk the steps to the Pearly Gates and don’t have to linger here.
…and still, in Prague, on the day of All Soul’s, you will see pernik baked like hers, standing in the window of some bakeries, or against the door in the memory of the spirits that loved pernik!
…and I know this is a true tale for I ate at their feast, drank at their table and danced at their wedding!
A gallery of pernik pictures with some other holiday cookies
The version of this story that I originally heard was told to me by a pernik vendor in the Prague Christmas Market in 1992. Yes, I’ve played with it, given it a different time and place and internal reasons. Tres Bohemes has a more standard version of the tale here: http://www.tresbohemes.com/2018/11/the-tale-of-the-headless-gingerbread-men/ …which I only found long after I started telling my story!
…and a museum in Cesky Krumlov that uses the same recipe that Baruska did – Lots of pictures! https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g274688-d12588960-r641742950-Cesky_Pernik_Old_Bohemian_Gingerbread-Cesky_Krumlov_South_Bohemian_Region_Bohem.html#photos;aggregationId=101&albumid=101&filter=7&ff=348922765
…and the “GingerBread Kingdom”, which seems to be where a lot of these photos came from. *
- Pernikova Chaloupka – The Gingerbread House – https://www.pernikova-chaloupka.cz/program/rezervace_k2.phtml
- Gingerbread Museum ® – https://www.pernikova-chaloupka.cz/tema/tema.phtml?id=1524 …with links to various displays of gingerbread and molds
- An article with a lot of pictures of Pernik by Tres Bohemes – http://www.tresbohemes.com/2016/12/gingerbread-designs-czech-republic/
- …and a really good recipe that’s not particularly difficult. – https://www.thespruceeats.com/gingerbread-cookies-czech-pernik-na-figurky-1135701
A note on the recipe. If you’re going to make a ton of batches, do as the pernik vendors do and make up large batches of the spices as a mix! They actually sell little bottles or bags of it, or did when I was there.
A link to a page about the Medieval Alchemists of Prague – https://www.tresbohemes.com/2023/02/the-medieval-alchemists-of-prague/
Photos collected through Google Images, many of them from the sites cited here. No copyright is claimed for the photos.
Page created 4/10/19 and published 4/28/19 (C)M. Bartlett
Last update 2/04/23