Decorative Cookies and Candies

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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The modern Christmas tree started as a vehicle for displaying Christmas confections. Cookies, especially gingerbread men, and paper cones cradling old-fashioned comfits, were among the most common nineteenth-century ornaments. Candy canes still festoon trees; although likely first appearing in the 1840s as a handmade confection, they became the emblematic Christmas candy in the 1950s, when production was successfully mechanized. See candy canes.

The gingerbread men trace their roots to ancient confections, with archival documents from the thirteenth century describing a bread made with honey and black pepper. Similar pepper, ginger, and other sweet spice-flavored hard biscuits are found throughout Northern Europe: a brief catalog includes Norwegian pepperkaker, Swedish pepparkakor, Danish brunkager, the Dutch speculoos (a specialty for St. Nicholas’s Day), and the German Lebkuchen. See gingerbread and speculaas. The cities of Nuremberg and Dijon were famous for their dry gingerbreads, with guilds of gingerbread makers established in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; although made year round, holiday versions were crafted in ornate molds carved with the image of Father Christmas. Gingerbread houses remain a German specialty that spread with German emigration patterns to the United States. Another beautiful German cookie is the springerle, distinctively flavored with anise or caraway and embossed with designs, often on the theme of love and marriage. See springerle. Similar treats generically called “cookeys” show up in America as the first confections specifically labeled for “Christmas” in late eighteenth-century cookbooks. New cookies, incorporating such nontraditional ingredients as chocolate and coconut, swell the ranks of American cookie exchanges. These parties, taking place in early December and at which each attendee brings dozens of cookies to trade, are a modern riff on the gluttonous feasting that has historically marked Christmas.