Who doesn't enjoy a good Christmas cookie? But have you ever thought about the history of them?
Those who would like to take credit for the invention of the Christmas cookie will have to arm wrestle the Germans for it. They believe that Weihnachtsplätzchen, a term that refers specifically to cookies and broadly to holiday treats, encompasses the origin of Christmas baking. The tradition goes back to the monasteries of the Middle Ages where monks had access to sugar and the spices we now associate with Christmas cookies: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom. These spices were brought back from the Middle East by knights during the Crusades.
The word “cookie” comes from the Dutch word “koeptje”, meaning small cake, because the Dutch brought the first Christmas cookies to the new world in the 1600's. The term "cookies" first appeared in print in 1703.
In Pennsylvania, the Quakers and the Scotch-Irish were strongly opposed to the celebrating of Christmas so Christmas cookies became part of the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. It was particularly so in the Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna valleys.
In the days of the woodstove, cookie baking would start weeks before Christmas. Tin cutters, in the shape of almost every animal aboard Noah's Ark, were brought out of storage and thoroughly scrubbed.
Quantity was the goal of Christmas cookie baking. "By the washbasket full" was the standard of measurement. Why were they baked in such profusion? The answer was, plainly, that they needed them for many purposes. One needed an ample supply for hungry visitors who might drop in; some went to the poor, old widow who lived down the road; a good many dozen were needed to trim the Christmas tree; children took some of the nicest to display in the windows of the front room facing the road to serve as a sort of Christmastime greeting to passersby; and those that were given to neighbors as a thank-you for borrowed cookie cutters.
There were always two kinds, light and dark. The darker kind contained molasses as the sweetening ingredient; the lighter variety, white sugar. In colonial and pre-colonial days, there was not the variety we find today. Existing accounts of Christmas cookies reach back to 1796 and about the only kind baked at that time were referred to as "leb-cakes."
"Leb-cake" is the partially anglicized version of lebkucha, which is translated as gingerbread. It should be noted, however, that few of the early Pennsylvania recipes called for ginger. In the early 1800's gingerbread horses made with extremely large tin cookie cutters were extremely popular.
The apee used to be the Christmas cookie in large parts of Pennsylvania. The cookie was made of a sweet dough, rolled out, frequently cut in the shape of animals and sprinkled with sugar. The word "apee" has an uncertain history. In the Annals of Philadelphia, J.F. Watson wrote in 1830: "Philadelphia has long enjoyed the reputation of a peculiar cake called the apee...Ann Page, still alive...first made them, many years ago, under the common name of cakes...On her cakes she impressed the letters A.P., the letters of her name." Others speculate that it came from the French word for spice, "epice", although the Pennsylvania Dutch cookies contained no spices and the word may have been a general name for cookies in earlier times and was later given a specific application.
In early Pennsylvania the doughnut was also considered as a Christmas specialty. They were considered such a rarity that they were usually eaten only on Christmas. Those Christmas doughnuts were probably what we call crullers today since their shape was likely anything but round. There were descriptions of doughnut rabbits and sometimes doughnut men, who were said to look like star fish.
The tradition of setting out cookies for Santa is rooted in the Dutch celebrations of Saint Nicholas, a third-century bishop who was known for his kindness to children and served as the model for Santa Claus. So on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th), children would put out food for him.
During the Great Depression, families did not have much money, but they had enough to bake a small batch of cookies for Santa. By leaving cookies for Santa, children were taught to be thankful and charitable for what they had, as well as to encourage generosity and reciprocity.
And there you have a brief history of Christmas cookies, particularly in early Pennsylvania.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!