Breads, cookies, and other baked goods shaped like animals and other symbolic figures are a highlight of many European festival traditions. After reading about foodways in East and West Prussia (two areas that are now part of Poland), I was inspired to combine some of their baking traditions into a fortune-telling amusement with animal crackers. Although the old Prussians used baked goods in fortune telling games for the winter holidays, this "Animal Cracker Oracle" is something that can be done, for fun, at any time of year.
Before getting into the animal crackers, here's a little of the folkloric background: The Prussians had a good number of festive baking traditions, though these could vary from community to community. For Christmas, marzipan and pfeffernüsse (peppernut cookies) were the favorite treats; people even played little games with the peppernuts. For New Year's (which Germans more commonly call "Silvester," it being St. Silvester's Eve), bread-like cookies or cookie-like breads were eaten to bring luck and ward off misfortune in the year to come (though a few communities did this, instead, at Christmas). These cookies were typically in the shape of animals—including cats, hens, cows, and foxes—and were offered to family members as well as neighbors. Eating one of these cookies is described as "taking a piece of New Year." Farmers also mixed these cookies into the fodder, so their animals received a share of New Year, and hunters set them out in the forest, because the game animals also needed to be blessed. If a family owned a fruit tree, the father would heave one of the children up onto his shoulders, and the child would affix the cookie to the tree, saying, "I give you New Year, so give me fruit."
Another major Prussian tradition involved using cookies or breads called "Glücksgreife" (lucky grabs) in an Orakelspiel—a fortune-telling game (though in this case, other symbols were used instead of animals). This was such a popular practice that bakeries catered to it. People customarily bought these Glücksgreifen in odd numbers, with a group of nine being most common. The cookies were then covered by a plate or bowl, and each family member took a turn, reaching under the lid to grab a cookie whose shape predicted what he or she could expect in the year ahead. A cookie in the shape of ring predicted betrothal, while one in the shape of a man or woman predicted marriage. A crown-shaped pastry denoted either marriage or death, a swaddled baby or a cradle meant a child to come, a pastry shaped like a loaf of bread signified a good outcome, a ladder or key meant success or Heaven, a four-leafed clover was for luck, and another figure, simply labeled "luck," was a cross inside a circle (like a Celtic cross or hot cross bun). Some of the other pastry shapes included moneybags, death's heads, twins, wagons, ships, stars, hearts, crosses, chimney sweeps, hammers, beggars' staffs, ox-eyes, and snakes Because "Greif" can be a pun, as it means both "grab" and "griffon," it would have been delightful if some bakers had thought to make griffon-shaped pastries.
Here in America, we can't run down to the corner bakery and buy "ten pennies worth of luck" as the Prussians used to be able to do, because it is not customary for bakeries to produce pastries in a variety of shapes. However, one product that does feature a variety of shapes is animal crackers, so it is possible to carry on the fortune-telling tradition by assigning symbolic meanings to the animal figures. When I want to entertain my friends with this practice, I go around to different stores, including health food stores, to get a large enough selection of animal cookie products. I then pile a bunch of the [unbroken] cookies on a plate, cover them with a cloth napkin, and invite my friends to reach under and grab some. (One can use tongs to seize the cookies, for sanitary purposes, if a large number of people are involved.) I based the following list of animal symbols on the products that I was able to find locally, as well as those listed by Internet sources. If you come across animal forms not mentioned here, assign meanings based on what those animals mean to you.
Bear: When Wall Street is "bearish," the economic outlook isn't good. On the other hand, the bear is a strongly protective mother symbol.
By the way, animal crackers have a history and tradition of their own, having originated in England as fancy cookies. n the 19th century, many American bakeries also started marketing animal cookies. In 1902, Nabisco repackaged their "animal biscuits" as "Barnum's Animals,"and later as "Barnum's Animal Crackers." This is the product best known today; its circus-wagon shaped box has a string on it, so it can be hung from Christmas trees. Some people feel they shouldn't be called "crackers," because their sweetness makes them cookies, but the popular term has stuck.
Janina Renée is a scholar of folklore, psychology, medical anthropology, the material culture of magic, ritual studies, history, and literature. Her books include Tarot Spells, Tarot Your Everyday Guide (winner ...