Most holidays are associated with a special sweet—candy canes at Christmas, chocolate hearts for Valentine’s Day and jelly beans for Easter. ‘Tis the season to bake (and eat) cookies; today (Dec. 4) is National Cookie Day.

            Although cookies are a year-round treat in the United States, snickerdoodle season comes but once a year. It is estimated the average American will eat 35,000 cookies in their lifetime. I’m certain I’m behind the lifetime average; on the other hand, my spouse the Binmeister thinks a balanced diet means having a cookie in each hand.

            The first cookies made were hard wafers twice-baked by early Romans. These hardtack cookies were portable, stayed fresh for a long time and traveled well. Roman soldiers dipped them in wine to soften them to eat.

The earliest cookies as we know them were made in Persia in the seventh century AD, when a pound of sugar cost more than a gallon of premium gas today. The Germans and Dutch made the first cookies associated with Christmas, gingerbread called lebkuchen. The word cookie comes from the Dutch word “koekje,” meaning small cake. In the 19th century, the British called them biscuits.

It took a century or so for the cookie trend to spread around Europe, but soon every country had its own version of Christmas koekjes, incorporating ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, almonds and dried fruit.  The Swedes baked crisp ginger snaps called pepparkakor; Norwegians made krumkake and anise-flavored springerle were the cookies of choice in Austria. Dutch and German immigrants to America brought along cookie cutters and recipes.

Animal crackers were the first commercially produced cookie in the US. However the Oreo, first made in 1912 as a Hydrox spinoff, is the world’s top selling cookie. Chocolate chips are also very popular. They were accidentally invented by Ruth Wakefield, who put pieces of a chocolate bar in cookie batter thinking it would melt; it didn’t, and the chocolate chip was born.  

The Final Word… The tradition of putting out cookies for Santa began during the Great Depression. Parents wanted to instill a sense of being thankful in their children so leaving treats was a way to say thank you to Santa. During the 19th century, it was thought unlucky to eat Christmas foods before the day dawned. That put Santa treats at risk unless his traditional milk and cookies were Oreos or chocolate chips instead of the holiday snickerdoodles, sugar cookies or gingerbread.

Gingerbread was baked in long flat slabs used to make edible houses tree ornaments in shapes such as stars, animals and gingerbread men. It is said the best way to eat a gingerbread man is to bite his head off first, so you don’t have to hear him scream.

And that folks is the way the Christmas cookie crumbles.