During the Christmas season, many people attend a cookie exchange or give gifts of cookies, and many kids participate in the time-honored tradition of leaving cookies out for Santa. The gingerbread man in particular has come to be a symbol of the holiday. But how did cookies become such an important part of our holiday celebrations? Like many of our modern Christmas traditions, the origins of Christmas cookies lay in pagan rituals that took place long before Christmas existed. Before Christianity, ancient peoples celebrated the winter solstice, which marked the changing of the seasons. Winter solstice festivals have always involved food. With the first frost, animals could be killed and kept safely to eat throughout the winter, and beer and wine that had been brewed in the spring were finally ready to drink.
Cookies first became associated with the Christmas holiday in Europe in the 1500s. By the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated widely throughout Europe, but the old tradition of feasting associated with solstice rituals remained. Medieval Europeans likely enjoyed roasts and drinks similar to their ancestors, but also pastries, which had evolved greatly since ancient times. The spices, dried fruits, sugar, lard and butter used to make pastries were expensive delicacies, so holiday cookies were a special once-a-year treat. Cookies, unlike cakes and pies, were easily shared with friends and family.
Gingerbread cookies are a classic holiday recipe that began in medieval times. Gingerbread originated during the crusades and was made by boiling breadcrumbs in honey and seasoning the mixture heavily with spices. The mixture was then pressed onto religious designs carved into wooden boards and dried. In the middle ages, laws dictated that only guildsman could bake gingerbread, but around the holidays the laws were relaxed, allowing people to bake in their homes. Thus, gingerbread became a special, once-a-year treat. Moreover, the molasses used to sweeten gingerbread made the treat an affordable alternative to treats that used more expensive refined sugar.
Medieval cooks wouldn’t have made gingerbread “men” like we do today; that tradition was started by Queen Elizabeth I, who had gingerbread molded into the shape of her favorite courtiers. Eventually gingerbread cookies shaped like animals and people came to be used as holiday decorations. Medieval cooks would have used many of the same spices we associate with Christmas cookies today, like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.
Cut-out cookies are another holiday favorite across the United States. These cookies come from the colonial tradition of “mumming” in which food was used to help depict Christmas stories. Cut outs called “yule dows” were often made in the shape of baby Jesus. In the 1800s, yule dows gained new popularity as “yule dollies,” cookies made with tin cutters, shaped like people and decorated elaborately with icing. These cookies were actually a bit controversial as some people thought they weren’t religious enough in nature for a Christmas celebration.
Elaborate, homemade cut out cookies remain a popular Christmas recipe today. “My mom and I make sugar cookies,” says Queen’s Grant Teacher Jordan Frederick. “They’re really involved and super messy, but they’re the most delicious cookies. Then we decorate them with cream cheese icing and sprinkles and give them as gifts to our family and friends.”
Providence High School English Teacher and Debate Coach Nicole Jenkins agrees. “I love the traditional sugar cookies – homemade only,” she says. “I have clear memories of rolling out the dough and making a minor mess with flour and using sprinkles and homemade icing to decorate with my mom.”
“My mom and I used to bake cut-out sugar cookies and then invite friends in the neighborhood over to frost and decorate them,” says Mint Hill resident Jennifer Kant. “We also used to compete for ‘cookie hair,’ which is what happens when you check the cookies in the oven and the smell stays in your hair.”
With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, some people shy away from complicated and time-consuming recipes. “We usually make the no-bake chocolate/peanut butter oatmeal cookies,” says Anna Skalski. “The main reason is that they are so easy to make during such a hectic time of year, and everyone loves them!”
For many people, it’s not the cookies themselves but the memories associated with them that make the cookies special. “I love raisin-filled cookies,” says local mom Tiffany Hurrell. “My great grandma made them for me until she passed away.” “My grandma would make peanut butter cookies with some sugar on top,” says Kaitlyn Betts. “She let me help her one year, and it was just such a special memory. She taught me her ‘secret,’ which was Pillsbury dough, but still it was special because I just loved making anything with her.”
The idea of leaving cookies and milk for Santa seems like a well-established tradition today, but it’s a rather modern invention. The idea took root in the 1930s during the Great Depression as a means of teaching children the importance of giving to others and showing gratitude for the gifts they received. However, the origins of this holiday tradition may go back farther to ancient Norse mythology. The Norse god Odin was said to have an eight-legged horse named Sleipner, whom children would leave food out for during the Yule season. The children hoped that the treats for Sleipner would entice Odin to stop by and leave gifts in return.
Not everyone leaves cookies for Santa. In Great Britain and Australia, Santa receives sherry and mince pies. Swedish children leave Santa rice porridge. In Ireland, Santa expects a pint of Guinness with his cookies. French children leave a glass of wine for Santa along with hay and carrots for his donkey. German children leave letters for Santa on Christmas Eve.
Just like people around the world, Mint Hill residents have their own special ways of welcoming Santa into their homes. Tiffany Hurrell’s kids leave out a traditional snack: handmade sugar cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. “We didn’t do Christmas cookies,” says local Mom Allison Towner. “Santa always got donuts and the reindeer got donut holes.” Perhaps Joshua Foster best demonstrates Santa’s varying tastes: “My parents always said by the time Santa got to our house, he’d be ready for a 20 oz, Sundrop and a carton of Milk Duds!”