December holidays are full of festivities and fun! Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah or a different festivity, one thing is for sure; everyone celebrates with food. The main attraction on most tables is, without a doubt, the cookie platter.
You wait all year for these cookies because it’s the only time that you make them. Some people have family recipes that have been passed down for generations, and others buy them from the local bakeries that only offer them during the holidays.
With thousands of cookie recipes out there, have you noticed that so many families eat many of the same cookies?
That’s because the origins of many European Christmas cookies go all the way back to medieval times. These recipes were created and adapted throughout most of Europe and eventually found their way over to the Americas and are still thoroughly enjoyed today.
Have you ever wondered where your favorite holiday cookies come from?
We have some answers for you about the origins of your favorite holiday cookies.
German Spice Cookies
The German spice cookie, also known as pfeffernusse, obviously originates in Germany. Pfeffernusse translates to “pepper nuts.” The nuts refer to the size of the cookie, not the ingredients. There are no nuts in this cookie.
They are always in the shape of small balls the size of a nut, and quite often, they are covered in powdered sugar or icing. As with many of these traditional cookies, there are variations; most recipes contain cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, honey and molasses.
This cookie can also be seen throughout history in different variations in neighboring countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. The exact origins of the cookie are unknown, but it has been an integral part of Yuletide celebrations since the 1850s in Europe.
These cookies are also associated with the Feast of Sinterklaas, which is celebrated in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. It’s usually held on December 5th or 6th and is a tribute to the life of the patron Saint Sinterklaas (or St. Nicholas), who died on December 5th and dedicated his life to helping others.
As the tradition goes, Sinterklaas visits during the night and leaves gifts for the children in their shoes at the beginning of December.
While pfeffernusse are commonly found in bakeries and even supermarkets during the holiday season, they are not difficult to make. I suggest you give it a try with this authentic pfeffernusse recipe from The Daring Gourmet.
German Cinnamon Star Cookies
Many of the holiday cookies you are familiar with can be traced back to the German monasteries in the 12th and 13th centuries. The German cinnamon star is no exception.
The monasteries were the only places that could afford the expensive spices from the east and had the luxury of being able to make and adapt great holiday offerings to encourage celebrations at a time when Christianity was just catching on.
Zimtsterne, often called German cinnamon stars or cinnamon macaroon stars, are classic German Christmas cookies made from cinnamon, almond meal and egg whites.
These cookies are popular during Advent and Christmas. These meringue-based cookies can also be found in the Jewish tradition during Yom Kippur.
German cinnamon star cookies are completely gluten-free which means they can be enjoyed by your gluten-intolerant family members. See, those monks in the middle ages did know what they were doing after all.
These cookies are kid-friendly and very easy to make. In my family, these cookies are a must-have every year. My son has been helping make these cookies since he was about 8 years old.
This recipe from The Spruce Eats is easy and fun. We often make them not only in the shape of stars but also bells and candy canes.
If your child is impatient and doesn’t want to allow the cookies to sit with the icing on them overnight, you can skip that part. Letting them sit allows the icing to dry so that it won’t crack in the oven.
Chances are you won’t notice that the icing is cracked as you’re gobbling them down anyway.
German Gingerbread or Lebkuchen Cookies
The last of our German entries is probably the most popular.
Lebkuchen or German gingerbread cookies are made with your typical gingerbread spices – ginger, cinnamon, molasses – and are commonly shaped into round flat discs often with a wafer underneath. The term lebkuchen translates to “pepper cake.”
As with most of the German Christmas cookies, lebkuchen can also be traced back to monks during the 13th century. For a time these gingerbread cookies were used as Christmas decorations and made into different fancy shapes. You may also recognize these cookies from Oktoberfest celebrations that are heart shaped and often around guests necks.
Many German families have their own traditional recipes for lebkuchen that have been handed down for generations, and they can differ considerably. You will find that no two recipes are the same.
If you are interested in making your own lebkuchen from scratch, this recipe from Food And Wine is perfect.
Moving slightly north, we land in Sweden.
Gingerbread cookies, as we know them in the US, are probably most closely related to the Swedish pepparkakor. It’s a gingersnap-like cookie often made into fun shapes and Sweedens signify Christmas time with this cookie staple.
In Sweden, these cookies were cut into shapes and decorated with icing to hang up as ornaments. Children in Sweden also decorate pepparkakshus (aka Gingerbread houses) during the holidays.
As with most of these cookies, the origins go so far back that there are many different interpretations of stories, but one story says that an Armenian monk brought gingerbread to France and taught the French how to make it.
It’s unclear how it made its way to Sweden from there, but some historians say that they were brought to Sweden through Germany. As we have already established, Germany seems to be the Christmas cookie capital of the world.
If you’ve never made gingerbread cookies from scratch, it’s lots of fun.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gingerbread cookie recipes out there, but this one from Sally’s Baking Addiction is a good one to get you started.
Dutch Speculaas Cookies
Dutch speculaas cookies are also known as Biscoff cookies, Belgian spice cookies or windmill cookies (because they are commonly found in the shape of windmills). In addition to being a trendy snack on Delta flights, the Biscoff cookie is a staple for families during the holiday season.
Dutch speculaas cookies are shortbread cookies made with the traditional holiday spices of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. The dough is usually pressed into a mold to create flat cookies with various shapes and designs on them.
In Holland, during the Feast of Sinterklaas, it’s a tradition to mold the cookies into the shape of St. Nicholas.
These cookies are so tasty that supermarkets now sell speculoos spreads or paste that are similar to peanut butter, but taste like cookies. Cookie Butter is very popular and you can get them in a creamy or crunchy texture just like peanut butter.
This recipe from Taste of Home uses a cookie stamp to achieve that classic speculaas look.
Linzer Tart Cookies
Linzer tart cookies, sometimes referred to as linzer kekes or just linzers, owe their heritage to the town of Linz, Austria. The linzertorte is one of the oldest torte (or cake) recipes, dating back to an Austrian abbey in 1653.
Over the years, the cake recipe was adapted to create a cookie. Today you can find both the Linzer Tortes, which are more like a cross between a cake and a pie with preserves in the middle, and the Linzer Tarts, which are the almond-based dough cookies with the preserves in the center that we are all familiar with.
These cookies are made with cinnamon, lemon juice and zest, nuts and your prefered jam or preserves and topped with confectioner’s sugar.
Linzer tarts are a common sight on tables during the holidays. Some people like to make them even more festive by making the center cutouts fun holiday shapes like trees or bells.
King Arthur Flour has an easy recipe that is worth trying out.
Almond Crescents Cookies
Another great cookie from Austria is the Austrian vanillekipferl, more commonly known as vanilla crescent cookies, Viennese crescent cookies or almond crescents.
Almond crescents are essentially a shortbread cookie made with nuts and shaped like a crescent moon. Traditionally made with walnuts, but can made with almonds or hazelnuts too and lots of vanilla sugar.
This crescent shape can be seen in cookies throughout Europe and owes its unique shape to the Ottomans. Legend has it that in September of 1683, the town wanted to celebrate their victory over the Turks in a recent battle, so the bakers created the kipferl cookies in the shape of the crescent moon that is on the Turkish flag.
Other counties also had similar celebrations and similar shaped cookies when they too were freed from Turkish rule. I guess great minds think alike.
While they originated in Vienna, these cookies quickly spread to become a tradition throughout many of the eastern European countries and have become a mainstay at Christmas gatherings worldwide.
If you’ve never had an almond crescent, they are delicious although a bit on the dry crumbly side and they will melt in your mouth. They are great for dipping in a cup of hot tea.
The Daring Gourmet has a wonderfully authentic and straightforward recipe. This is a great cookie to get the kids involved with baking.
Greek Honey Cookies
Greek honey cookies, known as melomakarona in Greek and sometimes called finikia, are traditional morsels of goodness with roots in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
They are oil-based cookies that are similar to a cake in texture and flavored with orange zest and brandy and covered in honey and walnuts.
The word makarona loosely translates to the word blessing. A version of these cookies without the honey originated as a treat offered during the blessing of the dead at funerals. Later the meli (honey) was added to the recipe, and it became a Christmas blessing tradition.
My Greek Dish provides a great traditional recipe as well as some other fun traditional greek holiday customs.
Struffoli cookies also known as honey balls are very popular during the holidays. These tiny deep-fried dough balls are covered in honey and decorated with small nonpareils sprinkles and originated in Italy.
Usually, they are arranged in a ring or wreath shape and make a comforting and delicious centerpiece on most Italian tables during the holiday season.
There isn’t much documentation as far as history goes, but these tiny delectables have their roots in Sicily.
Giada de Laurentiis shares her recipe for Struffoli from the Food Network.
Rugelach is so popular with many cultures; it makes an appearance as both a Christmas cookie and a Hanukkah cookie. Rugelach is a traditional Jewish cookie that is popular at many of the Jewish holidays, not just Hanukkah.
In Yiddish, Rugelach means “little twists.”
These cookies are another type of the crescent-shaped cookies that I referred to earlier. They are rolled in a way that resembles a croissant. Sometimes they are served in the croissant shape and sometimes they look more like circles with swirling delicious ribbons of chocolate or fruit filling. Rugelach can be traced back to Hungary, Austria and Poland, where they were initially made with a yeast-based dough and fruit or nut-based filling.
After the cookie took its journey to the Americas, the impatient Americans didn’t have time for the yeast-based dough and replaced it with a cream cheese base, which is still used in rugelach to this day.
Rugelach can be found in most bakeries during the holiday season and throughout the year. It is not the easiest cookie in the world to make, but this recipe from Epicurious lays out the multiple steps very well. This is also another great cookie to go with afternoon tea.
Russian Tea Cake Cookies
Russian Tea Cakes have been noted as one of the most popular Christmas cookies in the US. They also go by a few other names – butter balls, snowball cookies and Mexican wedding cakes.
These little powdered sugar-covered balls are made with butter and pecans. They are not that far off in texture and flavor from the Almond Crescents we discussed earlier.
Nobody knows for sure where they originated, but they appeared in the 18th century in Russia at tea-sharing ceremonies. So how did they get to Mexico? Mexico was full of convents between the 18th and 20th century, and it’s thought that European nuns brought them over and they found their ways into the wedding celebrations.
One of the reasons they may be so popular is that they are very easy to make and they freeze and store really well, so they can easily be added to your Christmas cookie repertoire.
This recipe at Food.com is lovely.
Thumbprint cookies have their roots in the 19th century Poland, Sweden and Eastern Europe.
They’ve also been known by a few other names, bird’s nest cookies, Polish tea cakes and hallongrotta, which is Swedish for “raspberry cave,” are a few of the many names they go by.
These cookies start as little balls rolled in nuts that are squished in the middle with your thumb, and the indentation is filled with preserves or jam. In America, we have adapted beyond fruit to include Nutella, chocolate, Hershey’s Kisses and even offer a variation with a peanut butter cookie base.
There are so many variations of these cookies it was challenging to pick just one recipe, so I picked two completely different varieties. This first recipe from All Recipes is the one that most closely resembles the family recipe I use for my holiday cookies. This second recipe is directly from Hershey’s. It’s the famous Peanut Butter Blossom Cookie that is one of the most popular Christmas cookies in the US.
Chrusciki goes by many names; faworki, angel wings and Christmas bows, to name a few. Regardless of what you call them, you can find them in Polish households during the holidays.
Angel Wings are traditional during the Easter and Christmas seasons.
They are a very simple cookie made from twisted fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. The concept had been adopted by many other cultures and can be seen in celebrations in many different counties.
In some countries husbands give their wives angel wings on Friday the 13th to try and avoid bad luck.
Here is a simple chrusciki recipe from All Recipes. If you have a deep fryer at home or you are not afraid to deep fry on your stovetop, you should give this recipe a try.
Italian Fig Cookies
Italian fig cookies originated in Sicily. They are also commonly referred to as cuccidati, buccellati or Sicilian fig cookies.
Cuccidati are pastry dough bites that are stuffed with a filling made from figs, cinnamon, honey, rum and walnuts. They are typically covered with icing and sprinkles.
The word buccellati stems from the Latin bucellatum, which means bites. Some historians think the cookie may actually be adapted from the ancient Roman pastry called panificatus.
No matter where these cookies come from there’s no doubt that they are delicious. This delightful Chicago Tribune article about an Italian Fig Cookie Festival features an award-winning cuccidati recipe.
French Butter Cookies
French butter cookies, or Breton biscuits, more commonly referred to as sablés, are not just a staple during the holidays, but they are enjoyed all year long.
These shiny round flat cookies, which commonly have a criss-cross pattern on them, are a specialty of Normandy and the Brittany area. The word sablés means sand in French. And the texture of these cookies does have a bit of a sandy feel.
French butter cookies are made with lots of cold butter and sugar. The cookies are thin and crisp and may sometimes be decorated with icing or extra sugar.
This recipe from Mon Petit Four is quick and simple and will have you eating these tasty cookies in just about a half an hour.
Holiday cookies have been a staple across the world for hundreds of years and families still gather today to bake, eat and share stories about their family recipes. If you don’t have a family cookie recipe maybe one of the cookies on our list will make the cut next season and continue to be a tradition moving forward.
And the next time you watch your son bite the head off your little gingerbread man, you know that that cookie recipe has stood the test of time and someone else’s child did the very same thing over 400 years ago.