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Why do we leave milk and cookies out for Santa?

There’s more than just one cookie crumb trail that leads to the answer
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Leaving cookies and milk for Santa is a widely-known tradition, but few know how it started. COURTESY OF RODRIGO ARGENTON/CC WIKIMEDIA
Leaving cookies and milk for Santa is a widely-known tradition, but few know how it started. COURTESY OF RODRIGO ARGENTON/CC WIKIMEDIA

I was born to a carefree atheist father and a strict Catholic mother. Given these dynamics, December 24 was somewhat of a compromise — my mid afternoon consisted of arriving three hours early to mass service to observe the rosary, while my evening was occupied by watching older uncles get drunk from drinking too much wine at Christmas dinner.

To other practicing Catholics, the chaos of this schedule might seem typical. The end of each calendar year was regularly accompanied by the challenge to indulge in Western Christmas traditions, while, in the words of my mother, “Remembering to thank God for all that he’s given you this year.”  

However, the observance of Christmas as a Christian holiday is slowly diminishing. A 2019 survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that 92 per cent of Canadians planned to celebrate Christmas that year. At the same time, only 10 per cent regarded the holiday to be primarily a religious celebration. Considering these findings, it’s fair to assume that Canadians of all religious beliefs will incorporate Christmas into their holiday plans this year, with activities such as setting up a tree and hanging stockings over the fireplace.

As a child, my favourite memory of Christmas was the surge in anticipation I felt when leaving milk and cookies on the mantle. Like many children worldwide, I believed that Santa Claus — an elderly man in a red suit who was carried in a sleigh by flying reindeers — would arrive at my home and leave me a gift for good behaviour in the previous year. To some degree, I was convinced that if I left the tastiest cookies in my neighborhood, perhaps I’d be given a better gift than I would have otherwise received.

My father works for Mondelez International, a confectionery, food, and beverage company. Some of their most recognizable brands are Oreo, Chips Ahoy, and Cadbury. Adjacent to their Scarborough bakery is a gift shop that sells newly made treats to visiting customers. 

During the holiday season — when the factory made more treats than could be sold and shipped to other locations — my father hauled human-sized cardboard boxes of treats home from work. Eagerly, my brother and I made numerous trips to his car, dragging the packages up our front porch steps to unbox them. This tradition lives on today — I write this article with the bright yellow packaging of a Mallomars box lying across my desk. 

After putting aside treats for friends and family, my brother and I tore into our remaining stash and scattered it across our fireplace mantle to give to Santa. We then poured three glasses of milk into large cups — my brother drank goat’s milk, I drank two per cent, and my parents drank skim — and placed them hastily near our Christmas tree. Needless to say, my parents’ cleanup job must have been dreadful. 

Though years have passed since my family has been participating in this tradition, I imagine that the shared excitement of it is unchanged. So, as children worldwide delightedly prepare their offerings to Santa, I examined how this custom came to be.

Feast of Saint Nicholas 

If you come from a Catholic family that’s a fraction as religious as mine, you’ve probably heard of this theory numerous times. It involves Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop who raised money for the poor and the sick by selling his personal items.

One year on December 6, Dutch immigrants held a feast in Saint Nicholas’ honour. Unable to stay awake for the celebration, children would instead leave treats for Saint Nicholas and his attendants, who travelled a long distance to be there, and awakened to discover their kindness had been exchanged for presents in the night. 

As the Protestant Reformation spread across Europe, this ceremony started to be considered excessive. In order to continue honouring Saint Nicholas, the feast was delayed until Christmas. Eventually, the tradition of leaving treats for travellers soon transformed into the practice of leaving cookies for Santa Claus.

The Great Depression

Some also believe that leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus originated as an American holiday tradition in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. During that time of economic hardship, parents tried to teach their children to give to others and to show gratitude for the gifts they received at Christmastime.

In an article for The New Yorker, author Jon Michuad notes that chocolate chip cookies were invented during the same time period. Although chocolate was in short supply, women were encouraged to bake chocolate chip cookies to send to their enlisted husbands overseas. This practice eventually translated into the holiday season.

Norse mythology 

Norse mythology includes the body of myths of the North Scandinavian peoples, which stems from Norse paganism. Odin, the most important Norse god, was described as owning an eight-legged horse named Sleipner, which he rode with a raven perched on each of his shoulders.

During the Yule season, children left food out for Sleipner, in the hopes that Odin would stop by during travelling to leave gifts in return. This tradition continues today in many European countries, where children believe that horses carry Santa’s sleigh instead of reindeers. On Christmas Eve, they leave carrots and hay to fuel these animals. 

Germany’s paradise tree

Another theory of the milk and cookie tradition is that it corresponds to the history of the Christmas tree. The main prop of a popular medieval play about the biblical figures Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree” — a fir tree from which apples hung, which represented the Garden of Eden. 

Germans set up a paradise tree in their houses on December 24 to mark the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. On their trees, they hung wafers symbolic of the eucharist, a Christian sign of redemption. As years passed, the wafers were replaced by cookies and apples. 

By the sixteenth century, the paradise tree had merged with Christian traditions to create the version of the Christmas tree that we know today. However, as Christmas tree decorations modernized, the idea of leaving snacks for Santa remained crucial to the celebration.

While the true history behind leaving treats for Santa Claus may remain unknown, different countries have spun the practice to create their own Christmas Eve traditions. In Argentina, children leave their shoes outside their front doors with the hopes of finding them filled with presents in the morning. They also leave out water and hay for Santa’s reindeer. German children write letters to Christkind, a gift-bearing angel that represents the Spirit of Christmas. In Sweden, gifts are delivered by Tomte “the Gnome” for whom children leave a cup of coffee. Australians offer cookies for Santa alongside a glass of beer. 

While I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to my father’s colossal boxes of cookies this year my mother unsuccessfully attempted to give them away to coworkers I’ll be saving my parents the hassle of cleaning the ripped cardboard of cookie boxes from under our fireplace.

To replicate that Christmas spirit, I’ll be passing on the tradition of milk and cookies to my niece. I recently stocked up on Lucky Charms-flavoured cookie dough, and will be spending Christmas Eve introducing her to Santa and having a sugary food fight.