Whether it’s caroling door to door, decorating a tree, lighting a menorah, or sharing meals with friends and family, the holidays are a time of tradition. But, have you ever wondered where some of our favorite holiday traditions began? Who decided we should bring trees indoors, or hang socks from our fireplaces and fill them with gifts? And what about holiday cookies? Who came up with these tasty treats that fill our tables and countertops every December? Well, let’s find out!
As with many holiday traditions, the origins of holiday cookies are said to date back thousands of years. Many early peoples all over the globe celebrated the winter solstice. This was a time to share the fruits of a successful harvest with the community and to prepare for the lean months of winter. Because of this, solstice festivals revolved around food. People feasted and drank and, what better way to end a delicious meal than with dessert!
Fast forward to the Middle Ages and many of these solstice celebrations began melding with the Christmas holiday being observed in what is now modern-day Europe. Although the Christian church brought many changes to the winter solstice festivities, one thing that remained the same was the idea of sharing and feasting. Medieval Europeans found that cookies were an easy food to bake in large quantities and store through the winter. Because these pastries could be cooked in large batches, many families used them as gifts to share with friends and family during the holiday season. This was also the time when many of our traditional holiday flavors found their way into baked goods. Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, as well as exotic fruits like dates and citron were traveling from the East to the West on newly discovered trade routes. These exotic delicacies, combined with sugar, lard, and butter were very expensive for medieval families, so the holidays were a wonderful excuse to splurge on these special treats and to share their good fortune with others.
The most iconic of these medieval treats has remained a holiday favorite to this day, gingerbread! Although gingerbread recipes have been found in Greece and Egypt dating all the way back to 2400 BC, the gingerbread tradition we are most familiar with began in Europe during the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I created the first gingerbread man when her royal chefs pressed gingerbread into elaborate molds shaped in the likeness of her favorite courtiers. At the same time, in Germany, lebkuchenhaeusle or gingerbread houses were a favorite holiday treat. Whether they’re shaped like houses or little men, decorating gingerbread with gold leaf, white icing, or other confectionary creations is a tradition that has carried on for generations. In fact, Bryan, Texas claimed the Guiness World Record for the biggest gingerbread house with its massive 39,201.8 cubic foot cookie construction! I guess everything is bigger in Texas!
Of course, Europe is not the only place where the holidays are celebrated with baked goods. Here are some popular holiday cookies from all over the world!
- Alfajores – South America
- Kolaczky – Poland
- Polvorones – Mexico
- Linzer – Austria
- Shortbread – Scotland
- Struffoli – Italy
- Rugelach – Polish (Jewish Community)
- Soetkoekies – South Africa
So, are you feeling inspired to try a new holiday cookie tradition this year? If you are, you might want to give these recipes a try, brought to you from the kitchens of your friendly Frisco Public Library staff. Happy Holidays!