Christmas and Cookies Go Together

Posted November 29th, 2012 by kerri and filed in small house living
Tags: , ,

Today, we have a guest post from Brette Sember, author of the new book, Cookie: A Love Story: Fun Facts, Delicious Stories, Fascinating History, Tasty Recipes, and More. Brette also authored “The Organized Kitchen” and “The Muffin Tin Cookbook,” both excel­lent kitchen books for small house lovers. She has an excel­lent gift guide on her web­site, http://​PuttingItAllontheTable​.com pair­ing all of her books with other great gift ideas for the holidays.

For lots of peo­ple, it’s not Christmas with­out cook­ies. Our kids leave cook­ies out for Santa, we spend weeks bak­ing and dec­o­rat­ing our cook­ies, and there’s always a cookie plate at any party. The gin­ger­bread man has become syn­ony­mous with Christmas. But how did cook­ies come to be such an impor­tant sym­bol of Christmas?


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, 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. 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.

Cookie Trees

Germans are also 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.

Cut Out Cookies

Cut outs are the cookie that is 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 are acted out and food was used to help depict the sto­ries. Yule dows were cut outs often in the shape of the baby Jesus as part of this tradition.

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. They 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 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’ helper.

Moravian Cookies

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.

Cookies for Santa

Ever won­dered why size-challenged Santa is left cook­ies to fuel him on his one-night jour­ney? Historians believe the tra­di­tion began dur­ing the Depression, as a way for par­ents to encour­age gen­eros­ity in their chil­dren. The tra­di­tion stuck, and Santa isn’t in dan­ger of need­ing a smaller suit any time soon.

Here’s my favorite Christmas cookie recipe, handed down for sev­eral generations:

Gai’s Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

4 cups flour

1 tsp bak­ing soda

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cream the but­ter and sugar, then mix in the adds. Add but­ter­milk and dry ingre­di­ents alter­nately. Add vanilla. Place the dough in the freezer for sev­eral hours or up to two months. Roll out the dough to ¼ inch thick­ness and cut with cookie cut­ters. Bake for 8 to 10 min­utes. Frost when cool.

If you don’t want to frost the cook­ies, cut them out with a round cookie cut­ter and dampen the top with an egg wash and sprin­kle with sugar, or sim­ply press a whole pecan in the center.


What is your favorite cookie recipe and do you do cook­ies for the holidays?

9 Responses to “Christmas and Cookies Go Together”

  1. […] wrote last year for the site, Living Large in Our Little House, about the tra­di­tions of Christmas Cookies. Did you know that Christmas cook­ies reach back to the 1500′s? And it all began with the […]

  2. merr says:

    I've always thought the cook­ies for Santa is such a sweet tra­di­tion — an offer­ing of good­will as well as a treat for some­one bring­ing you a treat, who has been work­ing all night on his deliveries!

  3. I've always won­dered about gin­ger­bread cookies–thanks for the info. Now I'm hungry

  4. When I was a child we had twisted candy cane sugar cook­ies and Martha Washington can­dies at Xmas.

  5. Alisa Bowman says:

    This looks like a great recipe to try. Thanks for shar­ing it!