Come December, it’s difficult to deny those few portraits of holiday tradition that hang in our minds as hallmarks of Christmas experience. Stockings hung from the mantel, presents wrapped under a twinkling tree, and chestnuts popping over a wood fire are all magical images instilled in us as children and recreated this time of year to celebrate the spirit of the season. Perhaps the sweetest of these merry moments may be the greeting of Santa Claus with a welcoming committee of cookies set out by the fire.
Bedtime-bound children across the globe celebrate this tradition by plating up homemade treats and store-bought goodies alike, offering our annual visitor a veritable buffet of sensational snacks as he journeys from chimney to chimney.
Growing up, this was one of my favorite Christmas activities — a younger me anxious to share my own magic with such a fantastic being. Most years I left a list of questions alongside my wonky-looking sugar cookies, and can recall a few moments spent begging my mom to let me leave him a gift as well. 'Tis the spirit of giving, and whether or not your cookie scene actually looks like a print by Currier and Ives is irrelevant; feelings of love and goodwill are present in each one-armed gingerbread man and sprinkle-covered crumb.
That being said, have you ever wondered where this act of confectionery kindness comes from? Why do we love to leave sweets for Santa?
The Traditional Offering
The act of leaving gifts for sacred or supernatural beings is a practice that dates back thousands of years across several societies of European, Asian, Oceanic, and African descent. Because Santa is most likely a divination of European influence, it's thought that our modern cookie traditions are adapted from solstice-themed pagan rituals in pre-Christian Europe, during which gifts of food were offered to the spirits of ancestors in exchange for a blessing.
Norse folklore of Germanic and Scandinavian countries presents a more elaborate theory. According to mythology, the Norse god Odin would lead a grand hunting party during Yuletide festivities. Children would leave out hay for Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, in hopes that he would stop at their homes and leave treats to give thanks. Another Germanic thought sees our cookie-based charity as an evolution of the decorations that adorned traditional paradise trees. A precursor to today’s Christmas trees, a German paradise tree was decorated with apples, wafers, and cookies. Tuckered out from his ongoing journey, Santa would snack on the decorations in each house. The truth was that mice were most likely the culprits behind these nightly nibbles, so glass baubles and cardboard ornaments soon replaced these edible garnishes. German children became worried that Santa would go hungry without quick access to snacks, and began leaving cookies elevated by the fireplace for easy access during his journey.
The most popular theory however, stems from the story of St. Nicholas. The Saint who is most often associated with Christmas, Nicholas was a third-century bishop known for being particularly generous to children and the downtrodden. The Dutch would hold a grand feast in his honor on December 6. Unable to stay up for the celebration, children would leave out treats for Saint Nick and other attendants who were surely weary after traveling a great distance to be there, awaking to discover their kindness had been exchanged for presents in the night. As the Protestant Reformation took hold of Europe, this ceremony was considered excessive, and in order to continue honoring St. Nicholas, the feast was delayed until Christmas, and the practice of leaving treats for travelers soon became the custom of leaving cookies for a Christian Santa Claus.
Present-Day Cookies for Santa
The amalgamation of these traditions was eventually brought to America with the European immigrants who migrated in the early 1900s. The trend then became increasingly popular during the Great Depression. With so many people down on their luck, parents encouraged their children to leave cookies in order to instill the notion that someone doing something special for you should be rewarded with a heartfelt thanks.
Today, it’s estimated that just over one million households in the United States continue this custom by leaving out cookies for Santa. This is a true testament to the reigning powers of shared tradition and the warming feelings of good faith and ancient enchantment. Whatever the reasons we started leaving cookies in the first place, it’s stunning to realize how many families still find time to revel in the magic of the holidays amidst our dizzying, demanding culture. Countless gingersnaps, chocolate crinkles, and even Oreos will be set out for St. Nick this December 24, all in the spirit of creating a merry moment with those we love that simultaneously teaches the practice of appreciation. So as we race to finish shopping and vigilantly guard the Christmas decorations from the cat during these final days until Christmas, I encourage you to take a few minutes to break out the butter and bake some sweet memories of your own.
As we count down to Christmas, try to remember how making cookies with your loved ones can be a precious, merry memory for years to come.