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December 30, 2008

New Year’s Cookies

Wait, cookies for New Years? I don’t know anyone who bakes cookies just for New Year’s Day but if it were two hundred years ago, quite a few of us would be busy baking up cookies, small cakes, other treats for all the company that would stop by on New Year’s Day. Of course, all this hospitality was pretty much confined to the fashionably prosperous in Colonial and Federal urban centers. Still, were it not for New Year cookies there might not be Christmas cookies, at least in New England.

Why the connection between New Year and Christmas cookies? In its early years, New England had abandoned the Christmas holiday. Puritans felt the holiday was too closely associated with Catholicism, too extravagantly observed, and particularly, not mandated by the Bible. For a very long time in New England, folks went about their usual business on December 25, but on New Year’s Day they might take a day off, visit friends, family, and neighbors, even exchange gifts.

In New York City, where colonial Dutch influence endured into the 1800s, New Year’s Day was observed by much visiting door to door. Hostesses passed cookies and cake and drinkables. The very word cookie is derived from the Dutch word for what the English called “cakes” plural.

When the Christmas holiday finally caught on in the middle-1800s, helped along by the popularity of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, New Englanders descended from Englishmen or Scots with no long-standing Christmas traditions to draw on, had to cast about for ways to celebrate. One solution was to borrow gift exchanges and cookies from New Years and apply them to Christmas Day instead. German, Dutch, and other European immigrants were rich in cookie baking traditions which fortified the new Yankee Christmas cookie habit.

Sandy Oliver, Food Historian, Author, MF&L columnist: The Way Things Were

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