The sweet history of Christmas cookies

by Jacob Fuller

Megan Udinski, FISM News


As you gather with friends and family this season, you are probably expecting to see carefully crafted platters of Christmas cookies or you have even spent time baking your own. Christmas cookies have a long history dating back to the middle ages.

The infamous gingerbread cookie has its roots in 16th-century Europe. There were laws during that time restricting the baking of gingerbread to guildsmen, individuals licensed by the government. Once a year, at Christmastime, the rules were relaxed and everyone could make the tasty treat in their own home.

Gingerbread has its origins in the Crusades and began as a breadcrumb, honey, and spice mixture pressed into a religiously decorated cookie board, known more commonly as speculoos today.

These cookies would have contained the same spices we associate with Christmas time today: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.

It is rumored cookie cutters originated from Queen Elizabeth I requesting that her gingerbread treats were created to look like each of her guests resulting in a tin little man shape. Since then, the cutters have been made from aluminum, copper, and plastic.

Near the end of the 16th century, Germans began connecting Christmas cookies with Christmas trees. They would decorate communion wafers, also called oblaten, and hang them on their Tannenbaum.

Then, in the 1800s, Americans adopted this tradition by hanging Barnum’s Animal Crackers boxes on their trees. Many still mimic this tradition today by hanging gingerbread look-alike ornaments.

In the 1600s, bakers would combine sugar and egg whites to create the original icing topping. Once the mixture cooled it resembled real-life icicles, hence the name.

With this evolution of Christmas cookies, where does the tradition of setting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus fit in? This tradition has a sweet history we could all learn from which originated in the 1930s. Historians believe that parents during the Depression encouraged their children to put these treats out in order to teach charity, compassion, and thankfulness during difficult times.

In 2021, it was estimated that “Santa Claus” consumed over 330 million cookies on Christmas Eve night. Some even put out carrots for the reindeer.

To see which Christmas cookie is most popular where you live, you can click here.