During this festive time of the year, there is of­ten much debate as to the most wondrous sight of the sea­son.

Some say it is a decorated Christmas tree, while others claim it is the beautifully wrapped presents under said tree.

There is no denying the splendor of a winter snow­fall, a candle-lit church, or the expression of joy brought to a child’s face by this magical time of year.

The beauty in all these things are, indeed, true signs of the holiday season, but there is one Christmastime sight to behold that also excites our sense of touch, smell and taste.

Freshly baked Christ­mas cookies have been a holiday tradition for centuries, and something I personally look forward to seeing, smelling and tasting all year long.

Celebrating the Winter Solstice was a well practiced ritual during medi­eval times. A large feast of roasted meat, drink and sweets was the common celebration for the changing of the seasons, but by the middle ages, the Christmas holiday replaced the Solstice celebration, but the feast remained almost the same with the addition of more dessert foods.

Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper were widely used in Europe. Dried fruits like citron, apricots and dates added a wonderful sweetness and texture to the des­sert plate, but like sugar and butter, these items were considered expensive commodities, and saved for important holidays like Christmas.

Cookies were soon born as the dessert of choice, mostly out of necessity. It was much easier and economical to share cookies as gifts with friends and neighbors than pies and cakes, and the rich flavored spices of early cookie baking are the basis of a traditional Christmas cookie favor­ite, gingerbread.

While wildly popular during medieval times, the gingerbread recipe can actually be traced back as early as 2400 BC. It was originally used for religious events and special occasions, but re­mained a staple in holiday cookie baking as time passed.

By the 1600’s, the addition of frosting was ad­ded to cookies. A mixture of sugar and egg whites that was originally used for cake tops was added to warm cookies. When the sugar/egg mixture cooled, it gave the look of ice to the cookies, thus the term “icing” was created for the cookie world.

Queen Elizabeth I popularized the frosted coo­kie by giving elaborately decorated cookies to guests during the Christ­mas holiday and at im­portant events. Soon ev­eryone wanted decorated cookies on their holiday tables.

As many things evolve with the passing of time, from the gingerbread cookie recipe came the simple, but beloved, Christmas sugar cookie.

This tradition started in the 1700’s when Ger­man settlers came to Penn­sylvania, bringing with them this unleavened, easy to store treat from Europe.

Just like gingerbread, sugar cookie dough is pliable, and easy to roll and cut into different shapes, but it is also easier to make sugar dough than the traditional gingerbread dough.

Thanks to revisions in the importation laws, by the late 1800’s Germany began to import cookie cutters to the American market.

Originally marketed as an easy way to create cookie ornaments to ad­orn your Christmas tree, the commercial cookie cutter paved the way to creating easy to make holiday cookies for the home baker.

By the 1930’s, the Christ­mas cookie’s fate was sealed as a permanent Christmas tradition in the United States.

During the great de­pression, parents began to instill the idea of kindness and thankfulness to their children by encouraging them to share their holiday treats with Santa in thanks for filling their stocking with toys.

This tradition of leaving cookies for Santa is still an important part of ma­ny household’s holiday rituals, and it is estimated that Santa will consume about 336,150,386 cookies this Christmas eve.

Today, Christmas cookies are more popular than ever! Although gingerbread and sugar cookies are still considered traditional holiday favo­rites, every family has cherished cookie recipes that have been handed down for generations. Most holiday cookie trays now represent flavors from all around the world, but many still combine the winter spi­ces and fruits from the medieval baking time.

There are plenty of cookie cookbooks and re­cipes available online to widen your holiday cookie baking repertoire, but a fun way to get and share new cookie recipes is to have a cookie swap.

To have a successful cookie swap, invite 8 to 12 people, and request them to bring two dozen of their favorite cookies (one for each guest to sample, and one to bring home). Also provide a printed copy of each recipe for everyone to bring home. This is a fun and festive get-together for friends, family or co-workers, and will provide true-tested recipes to add to your own holiday cookie plate.

This yuletide season, don’t take the little things for granted. Re­member, the simple Christmas cookie is actually rich in history and family traditions, and this little sugar pleasure can be a festive addition to your holiday celebration.

A bountiful cookie display can fill your home, and your heart, with the sights, smells and flavor of the holiday season from Christmas eve straight through to the New Year.

After enjoying all that Christmas cookie magic for the month of De­cem­ber, Jan. 1 is the perfect time to start your New Year’s resolution diet.

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