A (Very) Short History of Christmas Cookies

by Kurt Maerschel

My home land of Germany has a rich tradition of Christmas cookie baking. I have enjoyed the many varieties my entire life, but until recently I was not aware of the rich traditions and symbolism which underlie some of the most famous German cookie creations. I thought my newly acquired knowledge might be fun to share while we are all looking forward to celebrate Christmas this year. Enjoy!


Spekulatius (Speculaas)

The name “Spekulatius” is derived from Latin means “bishop.” But it is not any bishop these cookies remind us of. It is St. Nicholas of Myrna, also known today as Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas was a bishop in the early Christian church during the third and fourth century in Asia Minor. He was famous for his good works and generosity. His life is celebrated in Europe on the day of his death which is December 6th. Traditionally, Spekulatius cookies are consumed around this time of the year. The motifs on the cookies depict scenes which are meant to remind us of the various legends that surround this early church father. The “windmill,” for example, is there to remind us of St. Nicholas’ miracle of multiplying the grains so everyone had enough to eat. In Germany St. Nicholas comes on December 6th and leaves presents in children’s boots which are put in front of the door that night. I guess after that he is getting ready to bring presents to the Americans. In Germany the “Christ Child” will be responsible for bringing presents on Christmas Eve – no presents in the morning of Christmas day.


Zimtstern (Cinnamon Star)

The Zimtstern is a cookie which contains as a main ingredient cinnamon. Cinnamon was regarded in the past as a spice which came from the East -- the Orient. This exotic spice would have come from India through the Middle East to the ports of the Mediterranean and would have been weighed up into gold. Cinnamon was considered to be extremely valuable. The Zimtstern reminds us of the star of Bethlehem which pointed the way for the wise men to find Jesus in the manger. The spice tells us that Christ was born in the East, in a far and exotic place. The white frosting represents the impressive brightness of the star itself and also reminds us that Christ is the light of the world.


Lebkuchen (Gingerbread)

The Lebkuchen can trace its roots back to the Egyptians and the Romans, but it was not until the Middle Ages in Germany that the Lebkuchen received its shape and taste as we know it today. The name is a combination of the words Leb (to be explained later) and kuchen (cake). It is not exactly known what the “Leb” is referring to, but it is speculated that it refers to honey – one of the main ingredients- or to “leben” meaning living or life. The cookie was served in medieval hospitals as a medicine. Since it is high in calories it might have helped to support people fighting a disease. At Christmas we remember Christ in the Lebkuchen as he brought eternal life to the world and is the master healer.


Dominosteine (Domino Stones)

Dominosteine are a three layered cookie. The layers are to remind us of the three wise men who visited Jesus in the manger and brought him gifts. While we don’t really know how many wise men there were since the Bible does not tell us about the size of the group, it has been a Christian tradition since the sixth century which assumes that there are three wise men – often also referred to as Kings. You can see the layers have three different colors as the Three Kings have traditionally been depicted: one white, one brown and one black king. The three reces stand for the three known continents at that time – Asia, Europe and Africa. Three Kings bowing down before Jesus and bringing gifts reminds us that Christ brought salvation to all of the world (three known continents). The designation of the wise men as kings should signify that Jesus Christ is ruler above all.

I hope you enjoyed this short “cookie lesson;” if you are curious to taste some you can buy them at Aldi supermarket or at Kuby’s Sausage house at Snyder Plaza close to SMU.

If you have questions about cookies or if you need recipes, please feel free to talk to me in person, by email or by phone: kurt@kpumc.org or 972-835-1909.