A brief history of sharing holiday cookies, from solstice celebrations to saying thanks to Santa
As popular as it is today, people haven’t always left out Oreo cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. Obviously, Santa started delivering presents well before Oreos debuted in 1912, although he certainly doesn’t predate holiday cookies in general, which are actually older than Christmas itself. Before Europeans were celebrating the birth of Jesus, they were baking richly spiced cookies to celebrate, or help endure, the winter solstice. At that point, they were such a treat, they were basically gifts themselves.
Part of what makes a gift seem significant is how unusual or precious it is. Even if we pile cookies on platters with abandon today, the ingredients in gingerbread cookies, like nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar, were once precious imports for European bakers. Trade and technology eventually made these flavors a bit easier to obtain, and by the Middle Ages cookies were likely to incorporate black pepper, butter, citron, and dates. Nonetheless, each cookie would have still been pretty special, turning up only at feasts when a host wanted to impress their guests.
Showing appreciation to St. Nick
To Nabisco’s chagrin, not everyone leaves cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. It’s popular to leave Santa mince pies and sherry in England and Australia, Guinness and cookies in Ireland, and wine in France. German children think about their appreciation a bit more directly, writing letters to Christkind, a Protestant answer to Catholicism’s St. Nicholas.
Feeding Santa’s, and Odin’s, magic steeds
Santa’s reindeer (or in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, horses) are left treats too, from carrots to hay, often in kids’ shoes. This may seem like an extension of the cookies left for Santa, but like holiday gingerbread cookies themselves, it’s actually an older tradition that predates Christmas. During early Yule solstice celebrations, kids would leave carrots and hay for Sleipner, the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse. To say thanks, Odin would leave gifts for the sleeping children to find in the morning.
Source: Don’t Forget Santa’s Cookies and Milk: The History of a Popular Christmas Tradition by Sarah Pruitt, History.com