Christmas is undeniably a food holiday, perhaps the biggest food holiday around…second only to Thanksgiving whose main claim to fame is its magnificent, single-day feast and the football games and naps that follow. But Christmas is the whole package—it has presents, its own tree, numerous get-togethers, Santa Claus, outdoor lightscapes, tomes of carols, magical flying reindeer, and Christmas cookies—lots and lots of Christmas cookies.

For many folks, the holiday season kicks off with a baking marathon. Well-worn cookbooks and recipe boxes filled with tattered, splattered recipe cards are pulled from the shelves; grocery lists are carefully written out, and festive wrappings are purchased to wrap up sweet assortments for family and friends. Kids, eager to participate, wait patiently to help roll out Grandma’s special sugar cookie dough, sneaking a taste when no one is looking. Not realizing they are living a memory they will treasure as the years go by.

Cake plate with Christmas cookies

Giving Christmas cookies as a gift stretches back hundreds of years to a time when calling on friends and neighbors was the main part of the holiday season’s festivities.

In rural communities like ours, it was too cold for farming, so there was plenty of time to visit. And when you have guests, you want to give them something special to eat. Cookies were a fast favorite because they could be made in large quantities—and they kept well without refrigeration. Back then, most gifts were something sweet or a homemade craft—and Christmas cookies fit in both buckets.

Of course, we can’t forget the most important reason for making Christmas cookies: Santa Claus. Setting out cookies for Santa is a tradition with roots that date back to third-century celebrations of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a bishop who was known for his kindness towards children. Reciprocating his kindness, on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, children would put out food for him. Today we set out cookies (and a few carrots for the reindeer) to give Santa sustenance on his whirlwind, worldwide, one-night journey…and to sweeten the deal when it comes to how many gifts he will leave under the tree!

From German lebkuchen to Italian pizelle and Mexican polvorones, the varieties of Christmas cookies are endless. But what they all have in common is the love and care they are made with and the sweet memories they create with every bite.