By Wendy Petersen-Biorn
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping on your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, And folks dressed up like Eskimos.”
Mel Tomé and Bob Wells co-wrote The Christmas Song in 1944. The song, also known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, has become a holiday tradition. Nat King Cole first recorded the song in 1946, but it wasn’t until he added an orchestra to the recording in 1961, that it became synonymous with Christmas.
Holiday music, twinkling lights, fresh new snow, giving to those less fortunate, and the smell of holiday baking, all these things make up the wonder of the holiday. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanza, the holiday season is a time for traditions, family and food. Ah yes, the food. Every family has its own traditional Christmas fare. Thanksgiving is easy: turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. Christmas food varies wildly, depending on your own family heritage. There is one item that is the same in all cultures: cookies!
Most all sources, credit Belgium for starting the Christmas cookie tradition, but the type of cookie varies depending on the culture of the baker. Early settlers of Carver County were predominately Swedish, German, Irish and Belgian. Recent additions include Mexico and Minnesota transplants, like me. The result is a wonderful mix of culture that produces an even more wonderful mix of Christmas cookies.
Common Scandinavian cookies include krumkake, rosettes, and Pfeffernusse. Krumkake is a wafer thin cookie made on a waffle style iron. Unlike the waffle iron, the imprint on this iron is very light. The pattern is often vine-like, with a heart in the middle. About a tablespoon of batter is placed on the iron for several minutes. It is cooked to a light tan color and quickly rolled up on a cone shaped wooden rod. The cookies are very fragile, but the good part is that you can eat several without worry about the calories as there is very little batter in each cookie.
Gingerbread, also known as lebkuchen, is a traditional German cookie. There are several types: soft and crunchy. The traditional cookie is crunchy but Americans have a way of adapting things to meet the various tastes of a melting pot nation. Taking a lead from the sugar cookies, gingerbread is often formed into the shape of men and women, and then decorated. The sugar cookie is all American. Tradition has it that it was first baked in Pennsylvania in the mid 18th century.
Speculaas is a traditional Belgian and Dutch cookie. It is rolled out similar to a sugar cookie but with a rolling pin that is carved with traditional Belgium Christmas images. This cookie is also ground into a paste similar to peanut butter at which point it becomes Speculoos.
The Biscochito is a Mexican cookie and is the New Mexico state cookie. This is another cookie that is made similar to the rolled sugar cookie. It is butter based and flavored with anise and cinnamon. The traditional shape is the fleur-de-lis. These cookies are also served at weddings, baptisms, and quinceaneras. El Paisano is a wonderful Mexican bakery in Chaska where you can find all kinds of traditional items.
Transplants to Carver County, like myself, bring our own traditions. One of my favorite cookies is the Russian wedding cake, also known as the Mexican wedding cake. I am neither Mexican nor Russian but these little cookies are a holiday favorite. Made of little more than butter, powdered sugar and nuts, they are rolled into a ball shape and when taken from the oven, are rolled in powered sugar.
There are so many varieties of cookies coming from different groups of people. The cookies mentioned are nowhere close to being inclusive. A good place to explore is at Byerly’s, in Chanhassen. They have a great cross section from all groups. Who knows, you just might find another holiday favorite to add to your list.
“And so I’m offering this simple phrase, To kids from one to ninety-two, Although its been said any times, many ways, A very Merry Christmas to you.”
Wendy Petersen-Biorn is the Executive Director of the Carver County Historical Society,