How Cookies Came to Be the Ultimate Christmas Treat

We're sharing the sweet history of sugar, spritz, shortbread, and other Christmas cookies.

Christmas cookies and milk
Photo: Nastasic / Getty Images

Does your family bake sugar cookies or shortbread? Do they use a spritz or cookie cutters? Christmas cookies are an essential part of the season, but when and how did this sweet tradition start? In 1796, what is generally considered to be the first American cookbook was published with the what might be the longest title ever: American Cookery: or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake. The author, Amelia Simmons, included a recipe for "Christmas Cookery," although she warned that these cookies would be "hard and dry at first" and should be placed in an earthenware pot and a cellar or damp room for a few months.

Today's Christmas cookies need no such ripening or storage—they are frequently gifted, exchanged, and greedily consumed all during the holiday season—but the tradition of cookies at Christmas probably relates to that time when cookies were stored so they'd be on hand for guests. "You can't do that with a pie, if you're expecting visitors over a prolonged period of time," said Frederick Opie, Ph.D., professor of history and society at Babson College in Boston. "Christmas in many cultures was a time of visiting. It was cold, so you weren't out farming, and you had time to visit. Cookies were made in large amounts and with great care as something to share. And giving gifts didn't mean going out and buying something. Most gifts were sweets or crafts."

Christmas cookie traditions around the world include peppery papparkakor from Sweden, lemony krumkake from Norway, almond-flavored letterbanket from Holland, pfeffernuessen and spritz and lebkuchen from Germany. But most homemade holiday cookies were simple rounds until American import laws changed in the late 19th century, introducing inexpensive imported kitchen utensils including cookie cutters made of tin, and cookies were made emphasizing shape. Those cutters date back centuries to the carved wooden boards for springerle or speculaas cookies, said Rosemary Henry of the Cookie Cutters Collector's Club. "Kings would have their seal or likeness carved into the boards, and some were like the editorial cartoons of today, mocking the powers that be. They got very ornate, and in order to save time, metal outlines were embedded into the boards so that pressing them into dough would also cut out the cookies. Over time, the outline became more popular than the board."

In the late 1800s, traveling itinerant tinsmiths, or tinkers, went around the countryside, offering to repair household items like a coffee pot or pan. The lady of the house might want a cookie cutter made from the tin scraps, soldered on the back for support, sometimes with a handle. In the early 1920s, mass-produced aluminum replaced tin, and in the '40s, plastic became cheaper than metal. In 1948, Nettie Williams McBirney, who wrote a cooking column for the Tulsa World under the pen name "Aunt Chick," patented a set of plastic cookie cutters shaped like Santas, stockings, and stars. (Princess Margaret ordered them for her nephew Prince Charles's fourth birthday.)

Setting out milk and cookies for Santa is a tradition rooted in celebrations of Saint Nicholas, a third-century bishop who was know for his kindness to children, so on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th), children put out food for him—and what better fuel for a night's work than Christmas cookies and milk? Dasher, Blitzen, Rudolph, and Santa's other reindeer probably get hungry during the long sleigh ride, too.

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