Seventeen years ago the National Dairy Council put out a commercial about a little girl feeding Santa cheese instead of cookies. Now, I have kids of my own, and we leave cookies for Santa every year, but I wonder if there is a better alternative, something Santa would like better than cookies and milk, like cheese. On this episode of Hang Your Hat I explore the foods kids leave for Santa all around the world and hint, it isn't all cookies and milk.
I gave him cheese.
Watch the video that started me on the path to Santa food exploration.
Carlton Draught - Beer Chase
In Australia, kids leave Santa Beer, and there is a good chance that Carlton Draught is the beer Santa drinks most. Check out their very funny commercial.
Traditional Mincemeat Pie
British kids leave Santa mincemeat pie on Christmas Eve. Modern mincemeat rarely contains actual meat, but if you want to go super traditional and make your mincemeat out of actual meat, you can! Saveur has a recipe for traditional mincemeat that is from Mrs. Beeton's original 1861 Book of Household Management.
Welcome to Hang Your Hat. This is episode 24: Santa Food
In December 2000, here in the US, a Christmas commercial was released by the National Dairy Council. In it, a little girl rushes to tell her parents that Santa has come and leads them out into the living room, which is packed full of over the top Christmas presents, like a car, ski mobile, and a pony. The parents are of course in shock at the pure abundance left for them by Santa, and the dad remarks, “whoa, those must have been some cookies.” The little girl responds, “I didn’t leave him cookies, I left him cheese.”
When I first saw this commercial, I thought, it was surprisingly good marketing by the National Dairy Council, and that Santa probably would appreciate some variety in the food left out for him on the big day. I know that I would certainly get a bit tired of cookies and milk, after the 1 millionth serving.
At that time, 17 years ago, I had assumed that cookies and milk were universally served to Santa the world over. I was, as you can probably guess, dead wrong on that front. It turns out that, while Santa’s food offerings are pretty consistent within a single country - they tend to be pretty different from one country to the next. Santa is left a wide variety of food and drink, some sweet and some savory, and some completely lactose-free - in case Santa’s digestive system can’t take more than a couple million gallons of milk.
On this Episode of Hang Your Hat I will be exploring what kids leave for Santa around the world, but, before we get into that I will discuss why we got started feeding Santa in the first place. It is an ancient practice passed down through the generations, just good manners, or merely a bribe for better presents? It turns out it is all of the above and a bit more.
Like nearly all of the historical topics covered by Hang Your Hat, there is no definitive origin story for feeding Santa. There are in fact many theories on how we got started feeding Santa, and there is probably some truth in several of them.
Humans started leaving sacred or supernatural beings, like Santa, gifts of food in exchange for blessings thousands of years ago, and this type of practice used to be common all around the world. Since our earliest Santa stories come from Europe some think that the tradition of leaving food for Santa stems from winter solstice-themed pagan rituals in pre-Christian Europe, during which gifts of food were offered to the spirits of ancestors in exchange for a blessing.
The practice of leaving Santa and his reindeer treats also has a lot of parallels in Norse mythology. Odin, the head honcho of the Norse gods would lead a big hunting party every winter during the Yuletide festivities. He would ride his eight-legged horse Sleipner throughout the countryside with a raven perched on each shoulder. Children would leave out treats for Odin’s horse, like carrots, and wine for Odin (since that is all he ate or drank) in the hope that Odin would stop by their house while he was out on his hunt and leave them presents in exchange for the food.
Odin’s horse must have been pretty good at traveling through the snowy north because Santa takes a page out of Odin’s book today and trades his reindeer in for horses when he is traveling in some of the Scandinavian countries.
St Nicholas, like Odin, was also known for traveling during the Christmas holidays. Historically the Dutch would hold a feast in honor of St Nick on the night of December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. Since the party would start too late for kids to attend, the kids would leave out food for Santa and his entourage, who had traveled a long way to get to the party. The next morning the kids would wake to find that St. Nick had left them presents in place of the food.
St. Nicholas day celebrations fell out of favor during the protestant reformation - it was considered gaudy and extravagant and was discouraged by the church. The Dutch people didn’t want to abandon their St. Nicholas day festivities entirely so they moved the party to the night of the 24th, and kids continued to leave food for Santa on Christmas eve.
Leaving food for St. Nick was not always about just being nice though. The original St. Nicholas was born in Greece in 280 a.d. and was known as a defiant defender of church doctrine, that rewarded the good and punished the bad. Food was occasionally left for mean St. Nick as a bribe. Naughty kids left St. Nick a treat in the hope that they wouldn’t be punished by him.
Fortunately, Santa eventually morphed into the jolly fat man we know today who is much more likely to hand out treats than punishments (maybe all of the cookies sweetened him up).
One of the first references to leaving cookies for Santa here in the US is from the 1870’s and comes from a short story called Polly: A before Christmas Story. During the Victorian era, when this story was published it was customary to leave treats for visiting travelers and St Nick was no exception. It was also the time when the concept of “childhood” really began to take hold. Kid’s were encouraged to practice childhood rituals like leaving food for Santa and the food left for Santa was the food that was typically a treat for kids.
Surprisingly, this practice became even more common during the great depression. Times were tough then, and parents wanted to make sure that their kid’s learned that when someone does something special for you it should be rewarded with a heartfelt thanks. Leaving precious treats for Santa was a great way to say thanks for the presents that he brought.
Throughout the world, countries have their own special ways of thanking Santa for the presents that he brings. Here are a few of the foods that Santa eats on his Christmas journey around the world:
In Australia, kids might leave Santa some cookies and milk and some carrots for his reindeer, but Santa’s Christmas eve treat would not be complete without a cold beer. Keep in mind that it is summer time in Australia when St. Nick comes to visit, so he needs something to help him cool down after climbing down the chimney in his snowsuit.
I couldn’t find any stats on the most popular beer brand to give Santa, but I was able to find some of the most popular beers in Australia, and it makes sense to leave Santa the kind of beer that you would have on hand. So based on that, as of 2016, Santa was probably most likely to receive a Carlton draught during his trip down under, because it was the most popular beer in the country.
I had never heard of a Carlton draught, so I got curious and looked it up. It is a pale draught lager, with an absolutely terrible rating on ratebeer.com and a pretty bad rating on beeradvocate.com; however, it does have really funny commercials. There will be a link to one that is like a high-speed car chase but on foot holding beer in the show notes.
Swedish kids give Santa, or Tomte the Scandinavian spirit of winter associated with Christmas, the most logical of all of the Christmas treats in my opinion - Coffee. Santa is going full steam for 24 hours straight, and Santa magic can only go so far - the guy must be exhausted by the end of the night, and Swedish kids appreciate that and give him a little pick me up.
In Denmark, Santa has to share his Christmas Eve treats with his elves, called the Nisser. The Nisser remind me of the elf on a shelf. In Denmark, they live in the attic watching over things for Santa and making trouble.
On Christmas, eve Kids leave Santa and the Nisser Risengrod, because if they don’t the Nisser will cause trouble.
Risengrod is a special rice pudding that is a traditional part of the Christmas Eve dinner. It is made with sugar, cinnamon, milk, and sometimes dried fruit. To my American eyes, it looks a lot like a tasty bowl of oatmeal.
In Germany kids don’t leave Santa snacks – perhaps they are just as concerned about the big man’s blood sugar as I am – instead German kids leave Santa personalized letters, which Santa, of course, takes the time out to read.
When the kids wake up on Christmas morning, their letters are gone, but Santa has left them presents in their place.
In the Netherlands, Santa gets another break from the treats, and his horse (yes horse - not reindeer) gets all the love. Kid’s leave Sinterklaas’ horse carrots, hay, and water, and in return, Sinterklaas leaves chocolate coins, mandarin oranges, and marzipan.
In France, Santa won’t be downing any glasses of milk, although he might get a glass of wine. However, French kids tend to lavish their love on Santa’s reindeer, rather than the big guy himself though. After a long trip all the way to France they are going to need some nourishment too after all. French kids fill their shoes with carrots for the reindeer and find their shoes filled with toys and sweets the next morning. So far the reindeer have not complained about their carrots smelling of feet.
In Britain, Santa is left a traditional British Christmas classic - mincemeat pies.
Mincemeat is not something that we really have here in the US, so when most Americans hear the word mincemeat, they think meat, like steak, but modern mincemeat pies are not that likely to have meat in them. They are usually filled with a mix of dried fruits and spices
If however, you want to give Santa a traditional mincemeat pie this Christmas so that he has some protein to sustain him through the night, you can make one. I will link to Ms. Beeton’s 1861 recipe from her book on household management. Her recipe contains Beef Suet and rump steak.
Santa washes down his mincemeat pies with glasses of Sherry, which are sure to keep him warm and toasty during the cold Christmas night.
In Ireland, Santa gets another big helping of mince pies, and maybe a Christmas pudding or two, but he isn’t likely to drink any sherry in Ireland. Instead, he gets a nice pint of Guinness - that should hold him over while he makes the long trip across the Atlantic.
Santa’s reindeer get one more chance to tank up before journey’s end when they get to Argentina. Argentinian kids leave the reindeer hay and water. Circumnavigating the globe while pulling a sleigh, Santa, Santa’s jelly belly, and enough presents for every nice child in the world is hard work, and the reindeer could use the calories.
In Chile, Santa is known as Old Man Christmas, and kids leave a special treat for him on Christmas Eve, Pan de Pascua. Pan de Pascua is a spice cake with a texture similar to sponge cake, sweetened with honey and filled with ginger and sometimes candied fruits or nuts.
I can’t think of an equivalent cake here in the US, the closest comparison would probably be fruit cake, but Pan de Pascua is much lighter and fluffier than the dense, and usually gross fruit cakes we eat here in the US. A better comparison would probably be Italian Panettone or German Stollen.
Pan de Pascual looks delicious, and I bet Santa saves room for a few bites in all the homes in Chile.
Here in the US we thank, and possibly bribe Santa, by leaving him some nice sober protestant milk and cookies, which could get pretty boring after a couple of million homes. Fortunately, variety is the spice of life and there is no standard type of cookie to feed Santa. Popular Christmas time or really anytime cookies in the US include chocolate chip, sugar cookies, and snickerdoodles, which are packed with cinnamon, as well as, gingerbread, peanut butter, shortbread, and oatmeal cookies, but the one cookie Santa is more likely to get in the US than any other are Oreos. Oreos are sandwich cookies consisting of two chocolate wafers with a creamy substance of indeterminate origin stuffed between the wafers. Oreos are the number 1 selling name brand cookie in the US with over 674 million dollars in sales in 2017 alone.
So, how many calories worth of Christmas delights does Santa eat every Christmas eve? It is hard to know exactly because there is no database in which families report what they fed Santa or the caloric content of what he ate, but back in 2013, Delish did an article on the subject which used what I thought were some pretty reasonable assumptions about Santa’s cookie consumption. They based their figures on Santa being served cookies and milk at the houses that left Santa food, which we know will not be the most accurate estimate since the food that he is served varies by country, but for the purposes of estimation, we will assume that the average caloric content per household evens out to about caloric content of cookies and milk.
Delish estimated that 1 billion Cookies or Cookies equivalents are left for Santa, and 500 million glasses of milk or milk equivalents are left for Santa each year. If Santa takes 2 bites of each cookie and drinks most of his glass of milk then he consumes just under 40 billion calories each Christmas Eve. Now if you take into account the fact that quite a few of the glasses of milk equivalent are alcoholic, and most of the food he is eating is very sugary, you can see that Santa is likely to have some health problems on the horizon, namely cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes.
When I asked my son, who is 10, how Santa stayed healthy despite eating more than 1000 elephants worth of sweets and 9 olympic swimming pools worth of milk and booze, he told me that Santa drinks magic juice when he gets home Christmas morning that restores his body. I can’t really argue with that.
Thanks for for listening to Hang Your Hat. I hope you enjoyed the show and learned a lot about Santa’s gluttony. This Christmas, do your friends and family a favor and give them the gift of podcasts. Teach someone special about how podcasts work, and share your favorites with them.
This will be the last show of 2017, but I will be back in the new year with some brand new topics that I am looking forward to sharing with you all. If you have a question or topic you would like me to cover during the next year please let me know. I would love to know what you all are interested in learning about. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at hangyourhatpodcast.com
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Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, and I hope you have a great New Year.