Family time, Food Facts & Lore

Milk & Cookies for Santa and Odin

Holiday Season traditions are as numerous as cultures and beliefs. That goes without saying. One thing is for sure though, gathering around a copious meal is a favorite way to celebrate traditional Holidays, milestones and victories around the world. Another thing is certain, regardless of beliefs, Christmas is one Holiday that adds wonder into little kids’ lives. They may not even believe in Santa, but this does not matter. There is a part of them that naturally gives in to the magic of the season.

Do people still leave milk and cookies for Santa? We suspect they do. It is simply a delightful way to allow mystery and playfulness in the hearts of children. The origins of this tradition are many. Interestingly, it is one of the few Holiday traditions that does not have its roots in a commercial endeavor.

According to one theory, the cookies and milk ritual started during the Great Depression. Sharing and personal sacrifice were highly regarded values for many during this time of scarcity as our natural tendency for empathy is strong in times of struggle. It is in this atmosphere that parents began instructing children to leave milk and cookies for Santa as a way of teaching them to share. The incentive was clear: Santa would leave gifts in exchange for the welcome treat. It was not uncommon for children to leave carrots out, also, to feed the reindeer. As for the gifts, they were simple and cherished: new socks, an orange (rare and expensive), mittens or a single handmade toy or doll were greatly appreciated.

This, it turns out, was a great sacrifice for the adults too as sugar and milk were costly. Even families that were so fortunate as to own their own cows or poultry had to economize on all the nourishment these animals could provide. However, one would imagine that setting up a nice little table with a glass of milk and sweet, homemade cookies provided much levity parents and children enjoyed equally. And then there was the opportunity to play into the kids’ imagination by emptying the glass and leaving only crumbs on the plate by the time they woke up and ran to the living room.

Germany provides the backdrop for another possible origin for the milk and cookies tradition. The Christmas tree itself is the centerpiece in this case. In fact, we owe our Christmas tree tradition to these German roots. It was decorated with apples and cookies then. And yes, these were intended for the jolly old man. As Christian traditions settled in, the decorations changed and the cookies came off the tree and unto the plate for Santa.

The true inspiration for cookies in trees and on plates for Santa may date back to ancient Norse mythology, Odin and his beloved eight-legged steed, Sleipnir. During the Yule season, children believed that Odin and Sleipnir traveled the world and left gifts for them, as long as they left something for him. Cookies (probably small cakes) for Odin and hay for Sleipnir. This tradition continues in many parts of Denmark and the Netherlands where, incidentally, a horse takes the place of reindeer at the elm of Santa’s sleigh.

But we cannot conclude this sweet exploration without mentioning Christmas stockings, for they, too, played a central role as the inspiration for Santa’s cookies and milk snack. In the 1700’s and up to the early 1900’s, cookies and treats were placed in stockings and hung by the stove or fireplace for Santa, as this was believed to be his preferred entry point. Filling festive Holiday stockings with small gifts and toys for all members of the family is a recent adaptation, one mostly inspired by commercial endeavors. But this is why Christmas stockings are still closely associated with the mantle.

Cookies and milk are not the only treats on the menu for Santa. Cookies and a cool Guinness beer are likely to be served in Ireland. The French pour Santa a good glass of wine and the Swedes make a fresh batch of porridge. Interestingly, it is said that German children now prefer to leave handwritten letters to Santa as a token of appreciation for his generosity.