They have funny names: peppernut, springerle, Lebkuchen. But we know them all - and have probably gobbled them down - as Christmas cookies. The oldest and best known of them found their way to America through the baking traditions of European immigrants. "My ancestors came here in the 1870s from Sweden, where they had a bakery in Gothenburg," says Lou Seibert Pappas, baking expert and author of "The Christmas Cookie Book."
"They definitely brought their recipes with them," she adds. "Christmas cookies began as a tradition in medieval times ... in countries like Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany."
The first cookies were baked using carved wooden molds of fruits, animals, human figures, or hearts. The German honey-spice cookie known as Lebkuchen ("the ancestor of gingerbread," notes Ms. Pappas) was baked as early as the 15th century and is still popular.
"I've had more fun in Germany visiting Christmas markets," she says. "There are spectacular displays of Lebkuchen, 12 to 15 inches tall, in the shape of big hearts with messages baked into them. They're likely the forerunners of our modern-shaped Christmas cookies."
In fact, Pappas adds, other cookies called speculaas "were used in Holland to spread the word, like a newspaper." She says this was done by stamping words of an announcement or message into the dough before it was baked.
Swedish and Danish families made spritz cookies from a buttery dough squeezed through a cookie press into round shapes, wreaths, and letters. "My favorite!" exclaims Pappas. " We'd fill them with raspberry jam. As a child we had so much fun squirting out butter dough in shapes - S's, of course, because that was my last name then."
Bakers used pepper in place of ginger in many traditional cookies, depending on what they could find. "Spices were rare and costly, affordable only by the wealthy," Pappas explains. This is why so many cookies still have pepper in their names, such as the German peppernut, or Pfeffernüsse (FEFF-er-noose).
Cookies quickly grew popular all over Europe. The Christmas favorite in Scotland, shortbread, came from an oatmeal recipe once served at ancient yule celebrations, says Pappas. "The round bannock [bread or cake] was scored in the center with a circle surrounded by wedges. This was meant to symbolize the sun and its rays."
Marzipan - an almond-and-sugar paste used for cookies, candies, and even to shape into ornaments - wouldn't exist without the Arabs, says Pappas. "The Arabs introduced cane sugar, almonds, and spices [to Europe]."
In fact, all Christmas cookies owe a debt to the Middle East. Europeans tasted their first sugar and spices during medieval crusades to the Holy Land.
To modern Americans, Christmas cookies usually mean vanilla-flavored cookies cut into sugary stars, candy canes, and other shapes. These became popular in the first half of the 20th century when tin cookie cutters became widely available.
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Using an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar In a medium bowl for 2 minutes. Add flour and mix well. Put flour on your hands and roll 1 teaspoon of dough into a ball and place on a greased cookie sheet. Make an indentation with your finger in the top of each cookie and fill it with a dot of raspberry jam.
Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on racks.
Makes about 24 cookies.
Kaye Hansen and her daughter Liv make thousands of cookies each year at their bakery in New York. Their creations, pictured on this page, show what can be done with a little imagination. The photos and many recipes are in Christmas Cookies (Clarkson Potter, $16.95). The Hansens's best advice? Make your cookies a labor of love. "And the love you mix in will be returned tenfold by the smiles and cheers you will receive from your friends and family," they add.