Why is it that cookies are so common at Christmas? Why is Christmas the “Cookie Holiday”? The history is kind of cool actually.
Cookie Mystery #1: Where did the Christmas Cookie come from?
Modern Christmas cookies can trace their history to recipes from Medieval Europe biscuits, when many modern ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds and dried fruit were introduced into the west. By the 16th century Christmas biscuits had become popular across Europe. Families of these times would bake cookies and they would be hard at first. They would need weeks in a cellar to “soften”. Then they could be brought out and served to visiting friends and family during the holidays. They had a much longer shelf life than a cake or pie. They were also used as decoration as Christmas Tree Ornaments. They were even given as hand crafted gifts!
The earliest examples of Christmas cookies in the United States were brought by the Dutch in the early 17th century. Cookie cutters became available in American markets. These imported cookie cutters often depicted highly stylized images with subjects designed to hang on Christmas trees.
Gingerbread cookies, rooted in German tradition, were some of the first holiday cookies. The cookies were not just gingerbread men and not just for Christmas. The shapes of the gingerbread changed with the season, including flowers in the spring and birds in the fall. Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. The elaborate cookie-walled houses, decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf, became associated with Christmas tradition.
Sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions.
Did you know Animal crackers began as edible ornaments?
Cookie Mystery #2: So why do we leave cookies and milk for Santa?
Wow there are a lot of cultures that do this and many different theories as to how the tradition started. Check it out …
- Leaving cookies and milk for Santa could be linked to Saint Nicholas. During the tradition feast of jolly old St. Nick, December 6th, children would leave food and drink for the saint and his attendants. These offerings would be exchanged for gifts overnight.
- Leaving cookies and milk for Santa could be directly related to the history of the Christmas tree. In Germany, the people would decorate what they called a paradise tree with apples, wafers and cookies. This German tradition would merge with Christianity and become the basis for our modern Christmas tree. And Santa would often snack on the delicious decorations. Over time, while Christmas tree decorations changed, the idea of leaving snacks for Santa stuck around.
- Leaving cookies and milk for Santa could be linked to Norse mythology. People would leave hay and treats for Odin’s eight legged horse Sleipner in hopes the god would stop by their home during his Yule hunting adventures. This tradition was handed down to Dutch children who would leave treats out for Father Christmas’ horse.
- Leaving cookies and milk for Santa could be linked to the Great Depression. During this time, it is believed that parents wanted to inspire their children to share with others. To help them do this, they would leave snacks out for Santa Claus and his reindeer.
Cookie Mystery #3: So where did the “Cookie Exchange” come from?
Our survey of historic USA newspapers confirms cookie exchanges (cookie swaps, cookie trades, cooky exhanges) first surface during WWI. They were not necessarily connected with Christmas. Some might have been fund raising bake sales rather than cookie-for-cookie exchanges. This is an excellent example of how some words & phrases mean different things in different times. Newspapers confirm cookie swaps, as we know them today, were recognized as a “rising trend” in the early 1960s.
The Wellesley Cookie Exchange, arguably the most famous of American exchanges, began in 1971. It was a group of women who started swapping cookies around the holidays. It was an effort to celebrate the season and for these mothers to de-stress. They swapped cookies of all sorts and collected over 200 recipes before being the fist to publish the first Cookie Swap Cookbook. “The Wellesley Cookie Exchange Cookbook”
OK enough of the history – bring on the recipes!
Funny how each family has a traditional cookie that somehow always made it to the Christmas platter every year. Some may be more traditional and some may be more of the no-bake or dump style cookie. We have come a long way since just gingerbread and sugar cookies. What are your favorites? Below are a few of mine and a few submitted from other Hot Mess Mamas.
Cookie Press Cookies (AKA: Spritz Cookies):
My life is forever changed since I got a cookie press. This is the one I have. Spits out cute cookies in a flash! Kids love to help press them. $30 bucks seems like a lot but it is well worth it! CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO OXO COOKIE PRESS
This is by far my favorite recipe. Cream Cheese Spritz Cookies. A hint of almond extract makes this recipe shine! CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE.
My favorite shape to press is the wreath. Color the dough with some green food coloring and insert a sliced candied cherry into the center before baking. Sweet looking and super yummy tasting.
3 Ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies: CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE
These cookies you can press down with a fork. You can also press a Hershey’s Kiss chocolate into a soft cooled cookie ball.
No-Bake 5 min Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies (some call them “Reindeer Poop”): CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE
There are a couple of versions of “Reindeer Poop” but the ingredients are basically the same except some call for Rice Crispy Cereal or other cereals. This recipe uses dry oatmeal instead. Makes me feel like it is somewhat healthier … HA!
Sugar Cookies: Pillsbury roll – refrigerator section – buy that shit! No judgement.
COOKIE HACK: For those of you who are like me and need to dump, mix, and bake in a hurry. CLICK HERE FOR CAKE MIX COOKIE RECIPES!
COOKIE SCOOP: Get yourself one of these. Best $13 you will ever spend. You can use it for cookies, muffins, cupcakes, anything that is baked in a muffin tin or on a cookie sheet. CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO COOKIE SCOOP
That is all I’ve got. No go get baking! Best part … eating the dough! Post your favorite recipe or tradition in the comments! Would love to hear what cookies you celebrate with! Merry Cookie Christmas!