Pine sap, falling snow, freshly baked cookies—Christmas is as much about fragrant smells as it is about visual spectacles. And among the most enduring fragrances are those of Christmas spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger. They import their flavor to mulled wine and sweets, to candles and candies and coffee drinks. What is it about spices that makes them seem so quintessentially festive?
Spices are intertwined with the story of human cuisine and trade going back millennia. Their first known use is from 6,000 years ago; fragments of spicy mustard seeds were found in ancient pottery. Romans and Egyptians both used spices in funeral rituals and to embalm the bodies of the dead. There are also numerous mentions of spices in the Bible, including Moses’ use of cinnamon oil for anointments. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg all grew on the Spice Islands of Indonesia and came to be part of a thriving trade network between ancient Greece and Rome in the Mediterranean and the nations of India and China to the east. At this point, however, Christmas hadn’t yet become a holiday; for the Greeks and Romans, spices were more symbolic of wealth and luxury than any particular religious celebration.
In the New World, meanwhile, the native spices of vanilla, allspice and capsicum (which provides a mouth-warming kick), are all still in popular use today. But for European colonists in the New World, the traditional uses of Old World spices were the greater culinary influence.
The impetus for Christmas being feted with a bouquet of spices was the Crusades (the series of religious wars launched by Western European Christians against Muslims, whose territory had expanded across North Africa and the Middle East). “From 1095 onwards the successive attempts to liberate the Holy Lands from the Turks brought Norman Crusaders in contact with the cuisine of the Arabian Middle East,” writes historian Rebecca Fraser, author of The Story of Britain. Included among this cuisine were spices like pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. The Crusaders ate mincemeat pies made with dried fruits and shredded meat mixed in a sauce of alcohol and spices. The spices also worked as preservatives, an essential function in the time before refrigeration. (More recently scientists have discovered that cinnamon inhibits the growth of listeria, E. coli and A. flavus, all types of bacteria or fungi that spoil food and cause illness.)
Europeans associated the new flow of spices with the Holy Lands, and they were also familiar with the Bible passage that describes the Three Magi bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus. But there was one more reason to associate spices with Christmas: feasts.
As the celebration of the Winter Solstice meshed with the religious holiday of Christmas, nobles and the European aristocracy displayed their immense wealth and generosity in Christmas feasts. Spices were central to this conspicuous consumption. “Just as in Roman times, much of the appeal of spices was not so much that they tasted good as the fact that they looked good,” writes Jack Turner, author of Spice: The History of a Temptation.
One example is Henry II, who celebrated Christmas in Lincoln, England, in 1157 and demanded 60 pounds of pepper for his feast. The local grocers had to send to London, nearly 150 miles away, to fill the order. Then there’s Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, who hosted a Christmas Eve feast in 1414 complete with barrels of fine wine, an assortment of seasoned meats, fresh and preserved fruits and sugary treats. Even religious communities incorporated spice into their Christmas treats; monks at the monastery of Marienthal in Alsace, part of current-day France, began making gingerbread (pain d’épices) for the Christmas holiday in the 15th century.
“Historically you were eating these spices to show that you had money, or they were a financial indulgence [for lower classes],” says Sarah Lohman, a food historian and the author of the new book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. “On a practical level, that is why we have these spices in the wintertime around these big holidays like Christmas and New Years. The main factor is simply that they’re expensive.”
The spread of Christmas spices to America was a bit rough, thanks to the Puritans’ efforts to quash the holiday celebrations. Between 1658 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were actually outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It didn’t help matters that the colonists were forced to trade exclusively with Britain, which meant already-expensive commodities like spices became even more so.
After the American Revolution, the residents of ethnically diverse cities like Philadelphia and New York brought with them the Dutch, German and British traditions of making spice cakes and mincemeat pies and plum puddings, all seasoned with a mélange of spices. Christmas grew especially popular in the Civil War Restoration period, when it seemed as if the nation needed a common holiday to heal the fissures that developed during the war. In 1915, the holiday was so embedded in the cultural sphere The New York Times ran a story on the “Ideal Christmas Dinner,” citing an expert at the Bureau of Home Economics. The dessert options listed at the end? A traditional plum pudding or mincemeat pie, both of which are packed full of spices.
But the definition of what constitutes a Christmas spice has changed over the years. While initially the spice-driven nature of the holiday meal was a show of wealth and performative opulence, in more modern-times the “Christmas spice” palate has narrowed to specific flavors (see Starbucks’ holiday sugar-bombs or the ubiquitous Christmas ales from microwbreweries). According to Lohman, the first printed recipe for a Christmas cookie was flavored with coriander, a spice that’s since fallen out of popularity compared to cinnamon and nutmeg.
In her research, Lohman discovered a series of recipes in Martha Washington’s papers, including one for spice cakes flavored with black pepper that were supposed to last for six months. “They’re kind of fruitcake-like, and I have to admit the original recipe is gross,” she says.
She ended up modifying the recipe for her book to create a Brown Sugar and Black Pepper Cake, similar to what we’d recognize as gingerbread. Someday, she hopes, we’ll be back to seasoning our Christmas cookies with black pepper as well as cinnamon and ginger. But until then, at least it’s still a time of year to indulge in all other manner of sugary, spicy treats.
From Sarah Lohman's book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine
Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies
Recipe modernized from Martha Washington’s A Book of Cookery
Yield: makes 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of the cookie
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to top the cookies
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups packed light brown sugar
Zest of one orange
Juice of 1/2 an orange (about 1/4 cup)
2 large eggs
In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients and spices. In the bowl of an electric mixer, add butter, sugar, and orange zest.Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high until light in color. Add the orange juice, and then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
With mixer on low, add the dry ingredients slowly. Stop and scrape the bowl, then continue mixing until combined. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill at least 1 hour and as long as overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a generously floured work surface and with a floured rolling-pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. Using a pepper grinder, crack fresh pepper over the surface of the dough and then gently press the pepper in with the rolling-pin. Cut into desired shapes using a cookie cutter or knife. Bake on a cookie sheet 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through, until the cookies are brown around the edges. Allow to cool completely on wire racks.