Dutch Yule cakes known as Specullass Poppen ("spice cakes") were the focus of intense seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ecclesiastical opposition to the incorporation of Pagan practices into Christmas celebration.
Once upon a time, cookies and cakes baked in animal or human form substituted for Northern European Pagan blood sacrifices. Special wooden molds were used to create these cakes. These molds were preserved year after year and eventually developed an amulet type aura. Mold designs include animals, horned spirits, and images of female and male shamans. The "animal crackers" sold today may well be a holdover from this custom.
The tradition of creating Yule cakes pre-dates Christianity, and the tradition was retained post-Christianity. Eventually these cakes were incorporated into Dutch Christmas traditions, but many pagan motifs remained.
First Roman Catholic, then Protestant authorities passed ordinances forbidding the baking, selling and eating of these cakes. The Church even ordered the molds to be destroyed. As a result the molds were banned; many were confiscated and burned.
Yule cakes, or Speculass poppen cakes did not disappear; they remain popular today. Bakers just adjusted the molds, favoring more neutral images and more discreet motifs although many are very beautiful. Old Frisian cookie molds are prized collectors' items.
Many modern Yule cakes, especially inexpensive ones, simply favor geometric cookie shapes or are formed into people, similar to gingerbread men cookies. But more elaborate Speculaas poppen are still made with old fashioned carved wooden molds.
These cakes and molds also exist in German lands. Their German name is Lebkuchen, with the leb originally deriving from the Latin libitum or "offering."
May you have a Joyous Yuletide!