Nowadays, it seems like Christmas is all about the presents under the tree, but in simpler times, food was one of the focal points of holiday tradition. The sweet smell of gingerbread wafting and the clatter of metal cookie cutters echoing through the house used to announce the arrival of the holiday season. Grandma and her grandbabies would spend hours stringing popcorn and dried fruits to create festive garlands to decorate the tree. Children would hang stockings in hopes of tiny treats, proof that jolly old St. Nick had visited. The Christmas Eve fast observed in some homes would be broken, in Italian-American neighborhoods, anyway, with a midnight meal of seven different fishes.
The origins of some Christmas food traditions are a little hazy. Early Christmas tree baubles were foods for birds, cookies were munchable décor and used in storytelling, and little edible treats were Christmas gifts.
Learn about some of Christmas’s most delectable traditions and make them your own. Explore why we leave out cookies out for Santa, and continue the ritual by whipping up some of your all-time favorite Christmas cookies for that plate on the mantle. Celebrate with timeless eggnog and engage with its history, or revive the old-school practice of dropping a tangerine and/or some walnuts in a stocking or two. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!
Christmas cookies come in a wide variety across the globe. Cookies flavored with what we think of as Christmas spices and studded with dried fruit and nuts date to medieval times. Cut-out cookies have been traced back to the eighteenth-century tradition of Mummers, traveling players in England, who used them along with other foods as props in acting out Christmas stories. Large cut-out cookies also served as window decorations for Pennsylvania Dutch children in the 1800s. Today, they are synonymous with the holidays all across the U.S.
Cookies for Santa
Now, we don’t typically adorn our trees with food, but in medieval Germany, apples, wafers, and cookies were commonplace as ornaments. Once this tradition merged with Christianity and the tree became a symbol of Christmas, children began to notice the disappearance of edible tree ornaments. The vanishing of decorations was blamed on Santa who snacked on them. It became traditional to leave a plate of cookies by the fireplace to keep them warm for Santa’s snack.