How cookie and milk became Santa's favourite treat

Image courtesy: Flavour Diaries
… and the Indian version of it
By Madhulika Dash


Ever wondered where did the Christmas tradition of placing a plate of cookies with milk began?

Legend-wise, the ritual is said to date back to the Norse mythology, where during the Yule season (yes, cookies are that old a holiday ritual), children often left food for Sleipner, Norse God, Odin’s eight-legged horse. It was told that Odin would often leave gifts in return for the food shared. In reality, it was a practice started to share food with those unfortunate to make a perilous journey during winter.In fact, the origin of cookies, many like Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention believe date back to ancient time when it was the way food was stored. It is said that coarse paste of grains, fruits and water was made and then the mixture was baked on hot stones till hardened. This would be the “food” that tribes would have during winters.

By Middle Ages, courtesy trade and the arrival of spices like cinnamon, clove and others, the winter cookies became more elaborate even including sugary element like honey or molasses and ginger.

So when Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the ritual of cookies along with other culinary tradition was also adopted, but more as one of the holiday treat. In fact, food lore has it that Queen
Elizabeth I was the first queen to finally give the ginger bread cookies, one of the oldest versions
known, its modern style. It is said that to celebrate Christmas the queen would order her bakers to
design the cookie in shape of a man with faces of the visiting dignitaries. It was the era that also saw
the invention of cookie cutter.

Such was the craze for holiday cookies that by 1796, when author Amelia Simmons in her longest
title cookbook American Cookery: or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and
the Best Modes of Making Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of
Cakes decided to write on Christmas, cookies were a part of it. In fact, cookies, even then, were still
large rounds that were "hard and dry at first" and needed to be placed in an earthenware pot and a
cellar or damp room for a few months before they took on that edible crumbly texture.

It was during the Great Depression that cookie finally took centerstage as a significant part of
Christmas. With serious shortage of food, women were encouraged to bake cookies – cream and those of chocolate chips. Even though expensive, it became symbol of love and warmth. It was
during this time that children were encouraged to place a plate of cookie and milk for the Santa, who thanks to illustrator Thomas Nast had been transformed from a radical bishop to a jolly, pot bellied, red coat sporting lovable Santa Claus.The new Christmas ritual was in lesson not only in sharing but happiness that comes by sharing food. Since then placing cookie and milk has become a much followed and loved tradition world over with the unique offering. The common theme is the spice-heavy, sweet cookies. RITUAL IN INDIAFascinatingly the Indian version of this ritual is much more elaborate and depends on the community. Ordinarily, Christmas treats includes the wide array of sweetmeats like the kulkuls, sannas, guliyos, thali sweets, fruit wines, neureos and dohneiiong, there are a few dishes that are in sync with the essence of the cookie-milk ritual. For instance the wines, which are made of a variety of fruits including kala jamun (Indian blackberry) to amla (Indian gooseberry), pineapple and grapes. Then comes the signature dishes like meen varuthathu (fish fry) in the South to interesting date rolls in Maharastra and the sugar syrup-coated tender coconut kernels called gons in Goa.