Every family has holiday traditions they pass on. Take a deep breath and inhale the scent of baking cookies, cakes, and pies and you know the holidays are here! No matter where you come from, the smells of baking have special meaning, bringing back warm memories of childhood and the people we love.
One of our family traditions I have recently revived is a holiday baking party. Friends and their children come over and bring a family cookie recipe or two. I have all the ingredients they need to create their holiday favorites, and we get to work, sharing time with the scents of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg filling the air. We work together creating mountains of cookies, and everyone takes home a variety to share.
The Cookie Traditions of the World
My friends come from many different countries and cultures, and every area has its own special flavors that are associated with the holidays. In the USA, we love our gingerbread men, sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, and the perennial favorite, chocolate chip.
In Germany, the holiday means the smells and tastes of pfeffernüsse (spice cookies) and lebkuchen, a softer version of our gingerbread cookies. In Scandinavia, they enjoy crisp, very thin gingersnaps in heart and flower shapes or ring-shaped Danish butter cookies made with vanilla sugar and almond flour. The French create Madeleines, little vanilla-flavored sponge cookies with a hint of orange zest, or the ever-popular macarons, flavored with almond. The Italians create pizzelle cookies, made with a special waffle iron, crispy and traditionally flavored with anise, or rolled when hot and then filled with fluffy, sweet cream.
Bulgarians bake jam-filled maslenki for the holidays, a cookie filled with rosehip, plum, or apricot jam. Russian pryankiki are spiced and stamped with a wooden press or topped with a sweet glaze or frosting. In Iran, Persian walnut cookies, or rice cookies called nan-e berenji, fragrant with cardamom and sugar-infused rose syrup are part of the holiday celebration of Yalda, a celebration of the winter solstice.
The Love of Celebrations
People across the globe love their celebrations, and no season arrives without some type of event. In the dark of winter, we stay cozy indoors, creating holiday flavors, spending hours in the kitchen to present a feast. Celebrations are a reason to get together, set aside the troubles and stresses of life, and just enjoy each other.
Back in Time… Winter Celebrations Through the Ages
The winter holidays are celebrated in every culture and have been since time began. The Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, called Yule. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia, which began on December 17 and lasted seven days, was held to honor Saturn, called the “father of the gods.” During the celebration, wars were interrupted or postponed, and grudges were forgotten for seven days.
The Feast of Juul originated in Scandinavia, honoring the god Thor. A Yule log was burned, with various countries having traditions about the ashes. French peasants kept the ashes beneath the bed to protect against lightning storms, and other countries spread them every night on the fields or used them in charms or medicines – the belief in magic was alive and well. Some of the best medicine is sharing time with our friends and family and enjoying each other – the true magic of the holidays.