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Nowadays, it seems like Christmas is all about the presents under the tree, but in simpler times, food was one of the focal points of holiday tradition. The sweet smell of gingerbread wafting and the clatter of metal cookie cutters echoing through the house used to announce the arrival of the holiday season.

Grandma and her grandbabies would spend hours stringing popcorn and dried fruits to create festive garlands to decorate the tree. Children would hang stockings in hopes of tiny treats, proof that jolly old St. Nick had visited. The Christmas Eve fast observed in some homes would be broken, in Italian-American neighborhoods, anyway, with a midnight meal of seven different fishes.

The origins of some Christmas food traditions are a little hazy. Early Christmas tree baubles were foods for birds, cookies were munchable décor and used in storytelling, and little edible treats were Christmas gifts.

Learn about some of Christmas’s most delectable traditions and make them your own. Explore why we leave out cookies out for Santa, and continue the ritual by whipping up some of your all-time favorite Christmas cookies for that plate on the mantle. Celebrate with timeless eggnog and engage with its history, or revive the old-school practice of dropping a tangerine and/or some walnuts in a stocking or two. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!

  • 1. Christmas cookies

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    Christmas cookies come in a wide variety across the globe. Cookies flavored with what we think of as Christmas spices and studded with dried fruit and nuts date to medieval times. Cut-out cookies have been traced back to the eighteenth-century tradition of Mummers, traveling players in England, who used them along with other foods as props in acting out Christmas stories. Large cut-out cookies also served as window decorations for Pennsylvania Dutch children in the 1800s. Today, they are synonymous with the holidays all across the U.S.

  • 2. Cookies for Santa

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    Now, we don’t typically adorn our trees with food, but in medieval Germany, apples, wafers, and cookies were commonplace as ornaments. Once this tradition merged with Christianity and the tree became a symbol of Christmas, children began to notice the disappearance of edible tree ornaments. The vanishing of decorations was blamed on Santa who snacked on them. It became traditional to leave a plate of cookies by the fireplace to keep them warm for Santa’s snack.

  • 3. Tangerines in your stocking

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    Santa has a list and he’s checking it twice. Bad children get coal and the good ones get tangerines. Tangerines? In the U.K., good kids traditionally get a tangerine in their Christmas stocking. This practice began with nuns in twelfth-century France, who left stockings filled with nuts, tangerines, and other fruits at the houses of poor families. To their credit, a dose of vitamin C is actually a perfect gift during the colder winter months.

  • 4. The legend of the Bûche de Noël

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    Although the classic Christmas cake, Bûche de Noël, or Yule log, is French, the custom comes from pagan British celebrations of midwinter, or Yule, where a log was burned in homes to banish darkness and bad luck. By the Tudor period, the Yule log was decorated with ribbons and kept burning for the 12 days of Christmas. The French log-shaped confection made of chocolate cake and pastry cream symbolizes the belief that a log should burn continuously on Christmas night.

  • 5. Gingerbread houses

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    Gingerbread dates back to Greece in 2400 B.C.E., and by the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version. Gingerbread houses, however, originated in Germany during the sixteenth century and soon became associated with Christmas. The largest gingerbread house on record was erected at Traditions Golf Club in Byran, Texas, in 2013. It required a building permit, covered 40,000 cubic feet, and was constructed of 4,000 gingerbread bricks. That involved a ton (almost literally) of butter!

    Learn more fun foodie facts about Christmas.

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