The December holidays are full of festivities and fun! Whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or a different celebration, one thing is for sure; everyone celebrates with yummy 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 of year that you make them. Some people have family recipes passed down for generations, and others buy them from the local bakeries that only offer them during the holidays.
Have you noticed that families eat many of the same cookies each year with all of the cookie recipes out there?
That's because the origins of many European Christmas cookies date 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 the best Christmas cookies and 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 cookie's exact origins 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, 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. They 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 famous during Advent and Christmas, and the meringue-based cookies can also be found in the Jewish tradition during Yom Kippur.
German cinnamon star cookies are entirely gluten-free, which means your gluten-intolerant family members can enjoy them. See, those monks in the middle ages did know what they were doing after all.
These cookies are also 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 eight 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 enables 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 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.
As we know them in the U.S., gingerbread cookies 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 report 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, but some historians say 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). Besides 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.
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 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 preferred 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, it can also be made with almonds or hazelnuts 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 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 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 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 an amazing traditional recipe as well as some other fun traditional greek holiday customs.
Struffoli cookies, also known as honey balls, are prevalent 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 lovely 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 prevalent in many cultures; it makes an appearance as both a Christmas cookie and a Hanukkah cookie. Rugelach is a traditional Jewish cookie 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 U.S. 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 slowly found their ways into the wedding celebrations.
One of the reasons they may be so popular is that they are straightforward to make, and the cookies freeze and store 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 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 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 U.S.
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 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 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 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 half an hour.
Many people think of macaroons as a Passover dessert, but this crossover cookie has also become popular during Christmas.
This delicious treat has some variations, but the basic cookie recipe is quite simple. It's just coconut, egg whites and sugar.
The macaroon's origins are often credited to Italian Monasteries in the 8th or 9th century, but the story begins even further back than that. When the Arab empire expanded into what is now Sicily during the 7th and 8th centuries, they (like all cultures) brought their culinary traditions with them.
One of these traditions was a cookie made out of honey and groundnuts (most likely pistachio). The Sicilians called these cookies "maccheroni," as this word refers to any food that's made of something ground up (in this case, nuts).
The recipe in Italy evolved to include eggs for leavening and ground almonds (a nut very popular in the region). It was also here that Italian Jews adopted the cookie because it has no flour or leavening.
But the macaroon was to travel even further. In the 1500s, Catherine Medici (of the prominent Italian family) married into French royalty and brought her favorite cookie. In France, these cookies were known as "macarons."
In the 1900s, the French "macaron" diverged from its Italian origins when French baker Pierre Desfontaines added a chocolate ganache filling between two macaroons. And that's why the French macaroon is so different!
So, where did the coconut finally come in? In the 1890s, a French company invented shredded, dried coconut so they could ship the product without it spoiling. Soon it became a popular ingredient among chefs and eventually replaced ground almonds as the main ingredient in macaroons. And voila, there you have it! It was a long journey to get to today's coconut macaroon, but it was definitely worth it!
Chocolate Palmiers are popular year-round in France, but in the U.S., they're more of a holiday treat. This flakey and buttery cookie is made from puff pastry (with no yeast) and is topped with caramelized sugar, cinnamon and sometimes chocolate.
The pastry got its name because it's supposed to resemble a palm leaf ("Palmier" means palm tree in French.)
Palmiers are generally thought to have been invented in France at the beginning of the 20th century, but some sources argue they actually hail from Vienna, Austria. Although the exact origins are a little unclear, it's most likely that these cookies evolved from modified versions of Middle Eastern desserts like baklava.
Whatever the true source of the recipe may be, these cookies are prevalent around the world. The Germans call them "pig ears," while in China, they're known as "butterfly cookies." In Latin American, they're known as "orejas" which means ears.
In Catalonia and Valencia, they're called "eyeglasses" or "palm trees." We could go on, but we think you get the idea. People love these light and flakey bites of heaven by any name!
Seven Layer Bars
The seven-layer bar was invented in the U.S., and just like America, it's made up of a lot of different elements: graham cracker crumbs, coconut, chocolate chips, nuts and condensed milk.
So who thought up this deliciously over the top concoction? It turns out that these cookies go by the alias "Hello Dolly Bars." For non-musical fans, that was a popular Broadway show in the mid-1960s that starred Carol Channing.
The most popular origin story reports that an eleven-year-old girl named Alecia Leigh Couch of Dallas submitted her grandmother's recipe to a publication called Week Magazine, where it appeared in September of 1965 under Alecia's name, "Hello Dolly Bars."
What the connection to the musical remains a complete mystery. So, to sum up the origins of this Christmas cookie, we'll just say somebody's grandma invented it. And bless her little heart!
Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
These melt-in-your-mouth chocolatey and chewy treats are a little bit crispy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. They're basically a brownie disguised as a cookie and come with a layer of powdered sugar on top.
Once you mix the batter, you're supposed to refrigerate it for at least four hours or even overnight. Then the dough is rolled into balls and coated in powdered sugar.
In the oven, the cold dough expands and causes the sugar to make those cute little crinkles.
So, where do the crinkles come from? Helen Fredell of St. Paul Minnesota is said to have invented this famous holiday cookie in the early party of the 20th century. In her book "Cooky Carnival," the famed Betty Crocker actually speaks of being served these cookies in Fredell's home where she begged Fredell for the recipe.
We're so glad that Fredell decided not to keep her recipe a secret and spread the cookie joy!
These butter cookies are not only tasty, but they're also cute and a lot of fun to make. The word "spritz" comes from the German word "spritzen" which means "squirt."
Germany is credited with inventing the cookie press, but this is a bit of a controversy in the baking world. There is also evidence that it was actually the Scandanavians who created it. Whether these cookies hail from Germany or Scandanavian, food history indicates that the press was invented way back in the 16th century.
Since then, these cute little cookies have brought a lot of joy to everyone during the holidays.
This simple cookie is a total classic that you can eat all year long, but somehow you feel less guilty about chomping down on all that buttery, sugary goodness during the holiday season.
The history of the sugar cookie goes all the way back to the 1700s where it was invented by German Protestant settlers in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. That's why they're also known as "Nazareth cookies." These sugary confections became so popular in Pennsylvania that they were recognized as the commonwealth's official cookie.
Though the sugar cookie recipe is simple (either white or brown sugar, flour, butter, vanilla and baking soda), it's the cutouts that make them so festive. Gather the whole family and get out the cookie tray and cookie cutters to make fun shapes and add your own artistic touch to them with sprinkles, colored sugar, food coloring and icing.
If you missed out on cutout cookies as a kid, it's never too late to get started! After all, it's a tribute to American history!
Shortbread cookies are similar to butter and sugar cookies, but they're a bit more crumbly and have the delightful tendency to melt in your mouth. They also have a royal heritage.
The invention of these cookies is attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century. But it appears that their true origins are linked to medieval biscuit bread, leftover dough that was left to dry in the oven. Later on, the yeast was replaced with sugar, and suddenly they were fit for a queen!
These cookies are also made with spices sometimes. Mary, Queen of Scot's personal fav was said to have been a shortbread named Petticoat Tails. This shortbread was decorated with caraway seeds and cut into triangular shapes that resembled the fabric used to make this article of women's clothing.
Good things happen when cookies and fashion collide!
These cake-like cookies are a year-long favorite in France and show up on many U.S. cookie platters around the holidays.
These treats date back to 18th century France where they were first invented in the region of Lorraine. Though various legends are surrounding the inventor of these cookies, none have been officially verified.
The most famous story involves a young girl named Madeleine who was asked to stand-in for a pastry chef for the Duke of Lorraine.
Not knowing anything else to make, she used her grandmother's recipe for these cookies, which became a big hit. After that, the cookie became known as a "Madeleine" and never went out of style.
Cookie legend also tells us that King Louis the XV tried them on a visit to Lorriane and liked them so much that he brought them home for his wife Marie to try. She apparently introduced them to the French court, where they became a huge hit.
And to think that Madeleine's granny never got credit for impressing the drawing-room set!
We're just glad that we peasants are still allowed to enjoy them.
Yes, these Italian cookies have become somewhat ubiquitous of late, but there's still nothing better to dip in your holiday hot chocolate or flavored coffee.
This (let's just call it what it is) tough little cookie is usually associated with the Italian region of Tuscany. Still, its origins appear to date all the way back to the Roman empire.
Because they were so hard and durable, travelers often ate them during their long journeys. They were even used as food for the Roman legions! Who knew that biscuits fueled all that conquering?
As we all know, the Roman empire eventually fell, and biscotti disappeared right along with it. Thankfully, they made a comeback in Tuscany during the Renaissance, where a baker started serving them with wine.
Ah, the Renaissance. The age of light, re-birth and cookie comebacks! And with their vast popularity, we doubt this cookie will ever be a has-been again!
They're just an innocent sandwich cookie filled with vanilla cream, and yet, they are covered in controversy. At least when it comes to their origins.
Two states claim to be the source of the original Whoopie Pie. Some cookie historians claim they were invented in Maine in 1925 in a bakery called Labadie's. But the proof is lacking as the bakery eventually burned to the ground, and all its records were destroyed.
On the other side of the fence are the cookie buffs that claim that Whoopie Pies come from Pennsylvania Dutch territory, where the Amish handed down the recipe for generations.
They were supposed to have been made from leftover cake batter originally, and they're called Whoopie Pies because that's what the children said when their parents made them.
All we can say is, "Whoopie, we still get to eat them!"
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Whether it's the holiday season or not, the chocolate chip cookie reigns supreme in the good old U.S. of A and deserves a place on our holiday cookie countdown.
There's no question as to who invented this American favorite. A woman (some would say saint) named Ruth Wakefield came up with the recipe in the 1930s when she was running the Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts.
The first official printing of the recipe was in 1938 in Wakefield's cookbook "Tried and True." Though first conceived as an accompaniment to ice cream, the cookie gained significant fame in its own right. It was even featured on Betty Crocker's radio program.
In 1939, Wakefield sold the rights to her cookie to Nestle and allowed them to use the Toll House name for one dollar! A dollar she never even received! But apparently, she was given free chocolate for life and also worked as a Nestle consultant.
Though already a hit on the east coast, the chocolate chip cookie's fame grew even more prominent during World War II. Thousands of these chewy cookies were sent in care packages to American soldiers overseas. Now that's something to fight for!
The allies might have taken Europe back, but the chocolate chip cookie conquered America by the end of the war. And it's been going strong ever since.
So whether you like the classic chocolate chip cookie or a variation like chocolate chocolate chip, white chocolate or even vegan, there's nothing that brings you more cheer (or makes you more American) than biting into one of these beloved treats.
Off to Grandma’s House for Cookies
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 Christmas cookie recipe, maybe one of the cookies on our list will make the cut next season and continue to be a tradition moving forward. Or if you prefer not to bake cookies, you can just stick to eating the cookie dough or peppermint candy canes and drinking eggnog. We (nor Santa) won't judge.
And the next time you watch your son bite the head off your little gingerbread man, you know that your favorite Christmas cookie recipe has stood the test of time and someone else's child did the very same thing over 400 years ago.
You might also be interested in: The 30 Best Christmas Movies on Netflix, Amazon & Hulu [That You Can Stream Right Now]
26 Holiday Cookies:
- German Spice Cookies
- German Cinnamon Star Cookies
- German Gingerbread or Lebkuchen Cookies
- Gingerbread Cookies
- Dutch Speculaas Cookies
- Linzer Tart Cookies
- Almond Crescents Cookies
- Greek Honey Cookies
- Struffoli Cookies
- Rugelach Cookies
- Russian Tea Cake Cookies
- Russian Tea Cake Cookies
- Chrusciki Cookies
- Italian Fig Cookies
- French Butter Cookies
- Coconut Macaroons
- Chocolate Palmiers
- Seven Layer Bars
- Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
- Spritz Cookies
- Sugar Cookies
- Shortbread Cookies
- Madeleine Cookies
- Biscotti Cookies
- Whoopie Pies
- Chocolate Chip Cookies