It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when families around the country take to their kitchens to bake cookies galore – (or for those of us not so flour-inclined, swing by the bakery aisle). Whether you prefer gingerbread men, crisp springerles or crunchy biscotti, chances are you’ll enjoy some fresh baked Christmas cookies this holiday season. For me, there is nothing like a plate of cookies (or two or three…), a steamy cup of hot chocolate, and a toasty fire. Like many Christmas traditions, the origin of this delicious custom begins ages ago, in solstice rituals conducted long before Christmas became the huge commercial holiday it is today. Here is a little history to enjoy and share with others and a special recipe from Grandma Kowalski.
Grandma Kowalski’s Cream Cheese Crescents Kolachy Recipe:
- 3 cups flour
- ½ pound cream cheese – large pack
- ½ pound margarine
- your favorite jam
- Mix flour, cream cheese, and margarine thoroughly.
- Roll ¼ inch dough out on powdered sugared board (refrigerate dough if soft).
- Cut into 2 inch squares.
- Drop a dollop of jam into the center of each square.
- Fold corners to center to make pillow shape.
- Bake for 20-25 minuets at 350 degrees.
HINT: Add bread crumbs to the jam to prevent it from spilling out while baking. Or use specialty fillings purchased in the produce department of your grocery store., Prune, Apricot, etc.
The sweet history of Christmas Cookies
- Winter solstice festivals have been held for eons throughout the world. From Norway to West Africa, Ireland to India, groups of people gathered to celebrate the changing of the seasons. Celebrations revolved around food; after all, you had to feast before the famine of the winter.
- Solstice often meant the arrival of the first frost, so animals could be killed and kept safely to eat through the winter, and fermented beverages like beer and wine that had been brewed in the spring were finally ready to drink. As any modern host knows, a hearty roast and a tasty beverage need just one thing to complete the party: desserts!
- By the Middle Ages, the Christmas holiday had overtaken solstice rituals throughout much of present-day Europe. However, the old feast traditions remained. And while the roast and drink recipes were probably quite similar to what earlier Europeans had enjoyed, the pastry world was experiencing some amazing changes. Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper were just starting to be widely used, and dried exotic fruits like citron, apricots and dates added sweetness and texture to the dessert tray. These items, along with ingredients like sugar, lard and butter, would have been prized as expensive delicacies by medieval cooks.
- Cookies have been around a long time (they probably originated as drops of grain paste spilled on hot rocks around a fire), but they became associated with Christmas in Europe in the 1500s. Gingerbread was a similar food, but laws restricted its baking to guildsman (think early specialty unions), however at the holidays these regulations were relaxed and people were allowed to bake their own at home, making a very special once a year treat.
- The original roots of this holiday food tradition go back even further—all the way to ancient Norse mythology. Odin, the most important Norse god, was said to have an eight-legged horse named Sleipner, which he rode with a raven perched on each shoulder. During the Yule season, children would leave food out for Sleipner, in the hopes that Odin would stop by on his travels and leave gifts in return. Such a tradition continues today in countries such as Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, where children still believe that horses carry Santa’s sleigh instead of reindeer. On Christmas Eve, they leave carrots and hay—sometimes stuffed into shoes—to feed the exhausted animals. In return, they might hope to receive such holiday treats as chocolate coins, cocoa, mandarin oranges and marzipan.
- Gingerbread originated in the Crusades and was originally made using breadcrumbs, boiled with honey and seasoned heavily with spices. It was pressed onto cookie boards (carved slabs of wood with religious designs) and dried. Gingerbread evolved to become more secular and to use more modern ingredients. Eventually it became associated with Christmas when speculaas (gingerbread cookies) were made into animal and people shapes and used as holiday decorations. Recipies include ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace combine to make a snappy, spicy taste, just like they would have back then. And gingerbread uses molasses as a sweetener, something that medieval cooks would appreciate as refined sugar was so expensive. These cooks would not have made gingerbread men, however. The first person to try that was none other than Queen Elizabeth I of England, who had the cookie molded into the shapes of her favorite courtiers.
- Germans were responsible for associating Christmas trees with Christmas cookies. As early as 1597, Alsatians hung oblaten (decorated communion wafers) on their tannenbaums. Americans hung Barnum’s Animal Cracker boxes on trees in the 1800s (the boxes were designed for this purpose). Today some people hang faux gingerbread men on their trees, continuing the tradition.
- In the more recent history of Christmas cookies, cut-out cookies are now almost universally associated with the holidays in the US. We can trace these cookies back to mumming, a Christmas tradition in colonial areas where the Church of England was influential. In mumming, Christmas stories were acted out and food was used to help depict the stories. Yule dows were cut-outs made in this tradition, often in the shape of the baby Jesus.
- In the 1800s, Pennsylvania Dutch children created large cut out cookies as window decorations. Around this same time, Yule dows became popular again and were called Yule dollies. They were made with tin cutters and shaped like people, elaborately decorated with icing (like today’s gingerbread men). The face was always made out of a scrap of paper cut out of magazines, which had to be removed before the cookie was eaten. For some, the cookies were controversial because some factions felt the cookies were not religious enough (i.e., not depicting Jesus).
- In the 1840s, Santa became associated with Christmas and dollies representing him, with a scrap face, were made. Some of these cookies were so beautifully decorated that they weren’t actually meant to be eaten (like today’s gingerbread and gum drop houses). Yet another connection to Santa comes from the Dutch, who believed that pepernoten cookies were thrown around on Christmas by Black Peter, Saint Nicholas’s helper.
- Moravians were a Protestant sect that formed in the 1740s and were known for creating pyramids of cookies as Christmas decorations for their Christmas Eve services. Today, spicy Moravian cookies are part of Christmas for many people.
- Only on the most important holiday could families afford treats like these, which led to a baking bonanza to prepare for Christmas. And unlike pies or cakes, cookies could be easily shared and given to friends and neighbors. Our modern Christmas cookies date back to these medieval gifts.
- Today in the United States, leaving out a plate of cookies (Oreos and classic chocolate chip are popular choices) and a glass of milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve is a well-established tradition among children. But it hasn’t always been that way. According to one theory, the cookies-and-milk custom is derived from an older tradition, when families would stuff stockings with goodies for Santa and hang them by the chimney, his preferred mode of entrance, as a welcoming gift. Now, however, those stockings are usually chock-full of treats and smaller gifts for the family members themselves.
- Leaving cookies and milk for Santa—and perhaps a few carrots for his reindeer—took off as an American holiday tradition in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In that time of great economic hardship, many parents tried to teach their children that it was important to give to others and to show gratitude for the gifts they were lucky enough to receive on Christmas.
- Over the years, different countries have developed their own versions of the cookies-and-milk tradition. British and Australian children leave out sherry and mince pies, while Swedish kids leave rice porridge. Santa can expect a pint of Guinness along with his cookies when delivering toys in Ireland. French children leave out a glass of wine for Père Noël and fill their shoes with hay, carrots and other treats for his donkey, Gui (French for “mistletoe”).
- In Germany, children skip the snacks altogether and leave handwritten letters for the Christkind, a symbolic representation of the Christmas spirit who is responsible for bringing presents on Christmas. Though many German kids mail their letters before the holiday—there are six official addresses for letters addressed to the Christkind—others leave them out on Christmas Eve, decorated with sparkly glue or sugar crystals. On Christmas morning, the letters have been collected, and gifts left in their place.
(thanks to: Stephanie Butler at Hungry History for her insights)