This generously spirited tradition has a rich history that makes it all the more worth preserving.

By Tiffany Stevens
Updated December 19, 2019
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If you’re anticipating a visit from Santa this coming week, then you’re probably also planning to make up some sugar cookies (or simply to lay out some Oreos) in anticipation of the jolly old fellow’s arrival. And if you grew up celebrating Christmas, this annual yuletide tradition probably sparks memories of setting out similar treats with your loved ones. But when did we start leaving sweets out for Santa to sample, and how has the practice changed over time?

Like many Christmastime rituals, the roots of this holiday tradition can be partially found in pagan practices. Nordic worshippers, for example, believed that the god Odin participated in a yearly hunt during Yule. Children, in hopes that the King of Asgard would stop by their house, would leave out treats for Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Sometimes the Allfather would leave gifts in exchange for those horse treats, according to The Kitchn. In some European countries, like Denmark and Belgium, Santa’s sleigh is still carried by horses instead of reindeer—a variation that’s thought to be descended, in part, from Odin’s annual hunting excursion.

But leaving edible gifts out for Santa and his animal friends is a practice that can be traced to more than Norse mythology. Traditionally, St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated on Dec. 6, has been a time for children to leave carrots, grass, and other snacks out for Santa’s horses. Over time, this tradition is thought to have merged with other Christmas eve customs, leading to the yearly plate of cookies we leave out for Santa today.

In America, the Great Depression significantly spread the practice of leaving Santa a yearly snack, according to History.com contributor Sarah Pruitt. The practice, brought over by European immigrants, was encouraged as a way to teach children generosity, even during the most meager of times. By leaving out cookies and milk for Santa, children would learn to be more grateful for the gifts they did receive, as well as, hopefully, to be giving to those who didn’t have much to eat during the Christmas season.

Over time, many Christmas celebrants have dropped parts of the original yuletide practice. We don’t really set out carrots or hay for reindeer, for example, and we don’t expect an eight-legged horse to ride by our doors. But we still teach children to thank Santa with a plate of delicious cookies, along with a glass of milk. Whether the kids are setting out treats in hopes of more gifts, or because they want to make sure Santa doesn’t get hungry between rooftops, learning more about this yuletide tradition can help you gain an appreciation for how such rituals change over time. The custom’s history also demonstrates how some holiday impulses, like practicing generosity and gratitude, have ultimately never changed.