08 December 2011

A Short History of the Christmas Cookie

Baking and giving Christmas cookies, that staple of holiday celebration, a mainstay of December office snacks and a kind token neighborliness, is a centuries old tradition.

It’s hard to miss Christmas, but in Colonial times, it was wise to ignore the day. In fact illegal to celebrate Christmas. In Massachusetts, from 1659-1681 there was a 5 shilling penalty (Ouch: Close to 1% of a persons annual earnings) if you were caught observing the day. The Puritans animus towards Christmas harkens back to a 1621 decree by governor William Bradford who admonished non-Puritans for, “[having fun] on the day they call Christmasday”. Bradford, who would have felt a kinship with Dickens’ Scrooge, went as far as to decree mincemeat pie as “idolatrie in a crust” – the spices signifying the gift of the magi, which smacked of popery to him. Although Bradford would be outraged at our culture’s Christmas extravagance, he would never the less be satisfied with the fact mincemeat has fallen out a favor.

The cookie tradition derives from both Dutch language and custom: South of New England, in anything goes New York Amsterdam, Dutch colonists observed both New Year’s Day and participated in low key Saint Nichols Day celebrations, where they would often prepare koekjes – (BTW, that isn’t inappropriate Netherlandian slang; rather it’s the diminutive of koek or cake). These 17th Century Dutch settlers would bake various Niwuwjaar koeken, which I am going to guess, without the aid of Google translator, has something to do with cookies to commemorate the start of the calendar year.

The next wave of English settlers to the US weren’t as intensely religious; largely Anglicans they adopted the cookie custom. By 1796, Amelia Simmons in American Cookery gives recipes for ‘The Christmas Cookey’.

By the mid-1800s mass produced cookie cutters were being imported from Germany. Unlike Puritanical cutters, which would have been rectangular or square (rounded edges were far too provocative), these German imports were elaborately decorated, made of tin or copper were affordable and lent themselves to a shortbread style of sugar cookies that was and still is popular with home bakers.

Rather than baking a dozen different cookies, most people who still bake their own, often participate in cookie exchanges, baking one kind and trading for others. It has been almost 50 years since the first newspaper account of this practice was published in 1963. Last year my across the street neighbors gave me a tin of cookies, 2 others gave me a plate of cookies. In turn, I gave them nothing. I too am a little Scroogey – the spirit of Christmas needs a little reviving in me. Yet, the Ghost of Carbohydrate haunts that area around my waist is going to keep me from baking a 100 cookies, because no matter what I tell myself, a good percentage of them won’t end up going to friends and neighbors, but those with less humbug and more restraint should load up on the nuts and fruits at the Market this weekend.

A version of the post previously appeared on my blog, Saucyman.