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The True Meaning of Christmas (Cookies, That Is)

Christmas cookies
What is a Christmas cookie?

Is this a trick question? Perhaps.

Cookie ShotsChristmas Cookies
On the one hand, you may think that a Christmas cookie is one that you make (and eat) around Christmastime. But is that all there is to it? Because certainly Christmas cookies aren't just a result of everyday recipes dressed up with red and green sprinkles or dye, are they? It seems to us that certain cookies, while available at other times of year, proliferate around the holiday season--spritz cookies, gingerbread, cutout sugar cookies, for instance. In addition, how is it that nearly every family has a unique collection of cookies--ranging from bonbons to melt-in-your-mouth meringues to Rum balls--that only come out around the holidays?

Christmas cookies from our neighbors
To discover the true meaning of Christmas (cookies), we had to look back--way back--in time. Now, it's no secret that sweets have been part of holiday rituals since long before Christmas was a declared a holiday (which was in 1870, in case you were wondering). But according to Foodtimeline.org, it was a combination of Eastern spices and European flair that contributed to the cookie's success:
Gingerbread Men
Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas.
Naturally, cookies lend themselves very nicely to cookie cutters, which we would surmise is one reason why they tended to stick around as a Christmas tradition--not to mention that they have a long shelf life, travel well, and are made in larger batches that imply bounty (that is to say, even though 24 cookies and one cake may have the same surface mass, the number of items can fool us into feeling as if there is more to share).
Of course, the article goes on to state that sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions; perhaps their trip over the Atlantic was the inspiration for Animal Crackers, which were originally designed as Christmas ornaments
The best sugar cookies...EVER
While the tradition of Christmas cookies may have its roots in Medieval Europe, and while we may associate some cookies with the holidays more than others, it's also true that Christmas cookie recipes today come from all over the world--it would not be unusual to see German Lebkuchen, Scottish Shortbread, Italian Pizzelles and all-American Cornflake wreaths sharing the same plate. Why so? Well, we surmise that it's an illustration of evolution--as people immigrated and adapted, naturally they would want to honor their culture's recipes with the Christmas cookie tradition. While this may blur the boundaries of what is a Christmas cookie and what is just a cookie, it certainly does make the variety and joy of discovery at holiday parties a whole lot more fun. 

Sugar SkatesChristmas cookies with matcha glaze by MPG
And of course, it makes us all better able to add a few more recipes to our arsenal--as well as experiment--each year, sometimes with delicious results

Bonbon Cookies in pink!
But what of the US tradition of leaving cookies for Santa, you may be asking? Well, to us, that one's easy--clearly, Santa (whoever he or she is) wants a midnight snack. Duh.

Want more?

  • For a by-country list of Christmas cookies, visit christmas-cookies.com (though we didn't recognize any of the US ones!)
  • For more information about Christmas cookies in history, visit The Food Timeline.


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Reader Comments (22)

I love it when you give us posts like this!

December 22 | Unregistered CommenterJ.Danger

thanks for the little cookie history lesson...the flower power & skates are my favez but i'll just have to settle for my 4th rum ball now ;)

December 22 | Unregistered CommenterMango Power Girl

You know, I just found out about the tradition about leaving cookies for Santa when I contributed to an article about them in our local news paper. And I agree, even Santa needs a midnight snack!

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterVeron

Funny thing is, last week I took a poll amongst my friends and co-workers, asking what each person's favourite Xmas cookie would be, if they had to pick only one. And a surprising number of people asked "what do you mean by Christmas cookie?" like there was a special category with rules or something...

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Yummmmmmmmm!!! We spent 8 hours baking up a storm and it was all worth it!!!

this post looks wonderful...

Merry Christmas Jessie and Cake Spy!!!


December 23 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Evans

your blog is amazing!!! can I link it on my blogroll? pleaseeeee?

December 23 | Unregistered Commenterand.i.try

Santa needs a a sugar rush every now and then during the long Christmas travel season.

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterCookie Jill

I've never seen the skates..they are absolutely adorable!

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterLa Table De Nana

What a great selection of cookies! I've always wondered about the whole Christmas Cookie thing myself. Merry Christmas to you! :)

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterY

Those skate cookies are absolutely the bomb.

December 23 | Unregistered Commentergiz

... and she's a Gastroanthropologist too..

I really love to know the meaning behind stuff.. especially food stuffs :)

Merry Christmas!!

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Duh! Cookie history rocks.

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterEB of SpiceDish

What a great little cookie history lesson!

I'd be a bit suspicious of that list of Christmas cookies from around the world, though. Of the 3 recipes listed under Ireland, the only one that I recognise is actually a soda bread recipe - they must think we like our cookies cake-sized over here, LOL!

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterDaily Spud

I'm completely cookied out at this point.I have baked three batches of gingerbread cookies and I'm still edtiting the freaking post. Plus half of this month's TWD recipes have been cookies and I have made them and tried them all... And even though all these, I still loved your post! Haha. Thanks, Cakespy and have a merry merry Christmas!

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterIsa

Cookies were definitely a gift of abundance, considering the historical cost of ingredients such as white flour, butter and sugar. I find it easy to forget that these readily available ingredients are little miracles of production, just waiting for me to do something fabulous with them. :)

December 23 | Unregistered Commenterchou

Merry almost-Christmas, Jessie!
that Santa is a greedy, greedy man, I'm telling you. we keep him fit back where I'm from, and go soup-nazi style on him: no cookie for you!


Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, Jessie!!!!!!

December 24 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

What a GREAT post. I just wish I had a few of these gorgeous goodies to nibble on while visiting.

Wishing you and yours a Delicious Christmas Jesse!

December 24 | Unregistered Commenter~~louise~~

I love the ice skate cookies..too cute.
Have a Merry Christmas and be safe on our ice slicked roads!

December 24 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

I had no idea those spices have been around since the middle ages :D. Love the eyes on the gingerbread men! Hope you had a delicious Christmas :).

December 26 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

i loved it! thank you for the link of different cookies around the world!

December 26 | Unregistered CommenterGigi

Great post and links, I love the chubbie gingerbread men!

December 30 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie
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