Life is better with cookies… especially Christmas cookies

No sooner had I opened the cardboard box containing my brand new, shiny, stainless steel cookies sheets, did my phone chime with a message from my dear friend and editor, Gail at the Avalanche. She said that someone requested a Christmas cookie article.  

Another almost-instantaneous chime from my phone revealed a beautiful photo of a platter of Christmas cookies, homemade by our Bavarian friend Josef’s wife, Elfriede. Josef and I communicate regularly and I often have to translate his German text messages to English. Elfriede’s cookies are picture perfect, and almost too pretty to consider eating… but since she’s a talented baker, I’m pretty sure that plate of cookies was meant to be gobbled up. 

Since all at once, things in my world pointed to cookies, I’ve decided that we’re not going to have just one Christmas cookie article.

Since we’re wrapping up 2020, we’re going to have a different cookie article and recipe each week until Christmas. Just like I can never eat just one cookie, there’s just no way I can squeeze enough about cookies at Christmas into one week’s newspaper space.

By the time we get to Christmas, you’ll have at least three different options to leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve, share with family and friends, or enjoy yourself. I can’t think of any time in my life where cookies have gone to waste.

There are many theories behind the practice of setting out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Leaving cookies and milk for Santa could be linked to Saint Nicholas, a third-century bishop who was known for his kindness to children and whose feast day is December 6th. Children would leave out food and drink for the saint and his attendants, and the goodies would magically be exchanged for gifts overnight, while the children slept.

Another theory comes from Germany, when the people would decorate what they called a “paradise tree” with apples and cookies. This German tradition would merge with Christianity and become the basis for our modern Christmas tree. Santa would often snack on the tasty decorations, and over time, as Christmas tree decorations changed, the idea of leaving snacks for Santa remained.

In America, leaving cookies and milk for Santa could also be attributed to the Great Depression. During that time, many parents wanted to inspire their children to share with others. To help them do so, they would leave out snacks for Santa and his reindeer.

In the late 19th century, inexpensive imported kitchen utensils, including cookie cutters, made of tin, made their way into American kitchens. This allowed for cookies to be made into specific shapes – like stars and the gingerbread man that we all recognize – and Christmas cookies were forever changed.

In the olden days (like back to Medieval times), Christmas was time to visit friends and family. Since it was cold outside and the ground was hard and frozen solid, farming was not an option so it was a’visiting you went. Cookies were baked in large quantities and stored, and shared with all who visited during the season. Giving gifts didn’t mean buying things like we do today – most gifts were sweets or handmade crafts.

Many Christmas cookies today still use flavors like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, just as they were as far back as the Medieval days.

Perfect Christmas Sugar Cookies
Get out your favorite cookie cutters!

1 ½ cups butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Roll out dough on floured surface, 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely and decorate.

Icing for Sugar Cookies
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon almond extract
Assorted food coloring

In a small bowl, stir together confectioners’ sugar and milk until smooth. Beat in corn syrup and almond extract until icing is smooth and glossy. If icing is too thick, add more corn syrup.

Divide into separate bowls, and add food colorings to each to desired intensity. Dip cookies, or paint them with a brush.

NOTE: Another option for icing is mixing milk of your choosing (cow, goat, coconut, almond, etc.) with confectioner’s sugar until smooth and thin, like a watery paint. Paint it on your cookies thinly, and let dry between coats.

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