biscotti baking2


One of the significant aspects of any holiday celebration is food—roasted hams and turkeys, braided or caramel-topped breads, potatoes mashed and turned into dumplings. Sweet treats are the most common and expected, everyone having their favorites, such as pumpkin pie, pecan pie, chocolate cake, Yule log cake—and cookies.

Oh, the cookies. Cookies eaten alone. Or with ice cream. Or dipped in a favorite hot beverage. What would this December holiday season be without cookies?

But where did holiday cookies come from? And what who thought about leaving out cookies with a glass of milk for Santa?

According to Wikipedia, “Modern Christmas cookies can trace their history to recipes from Medieval Europe biscuits, when many modern ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds and dried fruit were introduced into the west.” Cookies from centuries ago were neither soft nor sweet and were called biscuits…as they still are in Britain. They lasted for weeks and were easy to pack for travel. Sweet cookies began showing up in the 14th century, and by the 16th century Christmas biscuits were popular across Europe.

Russians have their tea cakes, Germans their lebkuchen, Sweden their pepparkakor, and from Norway comes krumkake. I learned to make biscotti, a twice-baked cookie with anise oil and slivered almonds, from my husband’s Italian mother.

According to another site, Grebes Bakery, the word “cookie” comes from the Dutch word “koeptje” because the Dutch brought the first Christmas cookies to the new world in the 1600s. Unlike pie and cakes, cookies may have become popular at this time of year because, like their hardier ancestors, they can be stored for longer periods of time, and even given as gifts.

Speaking of gifts, leaving cookies out for Santa became popular during the Great Depression as a way for parents to encourage children to express gratitude to that most magical of beings.

Cookies are a way to share traditions and evoke memories.

Which is why I still bake close to a dozen batches of cookies each holiday season. Everyone in my family has their favorites.

One of mine is a coconut cranberry chew recipe I discovered years ago. Another is a maple lace roll-up that evokes memories of my mother, now gone, and her delight in holiday baking.

What are your favorite holiday cookies? What magical memories are associated with them?