How Did We Start Putting Cookies Out for Santa? by Yunah Baek

The Christmas season is approaching, with carols already ringing in department stores, red and green outfits popping up, Starbucks’ peppermint beverages flamboyantly making an appearance on the menu, and Costco’s notorious summer-start decorations advertising themselves in full swing. And, as the many Christmas traditions start infiltrating our minds, from wondering when to put up the tree to organizing family gatherings and preparing gifts, I started to fixate on a memory of milk and cookies near the fireplace and tree.

Where did this seemingly random ritual come from? It’s one of those things that we have become so used to that it’s never second-guessed, but for those curious, it is believed to have originated in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Parents encouraged children to show gratitude and generosity, perhaps because of the trying times, and this translated into the modern tradition of leaving Santa a treat to look forward to. Chocolate chip cookies were also credited to have been invented during this era, and many women sent these baked goods to their husbands fighting in World War II. Though haphazard at first glance, there is a much greater message of endurance in the origin of the Christmas-time milk and cookies combination.

This tradition is also seen in various forms in many European countries. Sherry and mince pies are seen in the United Kingdom and Australia, and rice porridge is popular in Sweden. Ireland replaces the United States’ glass of milk for a pint of beer while children in Germany mail—to one of the six official addresses—or leave handwritten letters for Christkind, the gift giver, who switches the letters for presents, similar to the American tradition. France switches the milk and cookies for a glass of wine and stuffs treats—hay and carrots—into shoes for Father Christmas’, or Père Noël’s, donkey. 

Though the true origin of the milk and cookies tradition remains lost, many countries have made their own versions that are practiced during the Christmas season. I invite you to try any of these traditions for a slight change from the usual combination!