My mother's side of the family is Swedish, and in Sweden, Christmastime centers around a huge number of traditions, some of which my family keeps up during the holiday season. We've always made rice pudding and placed an almond inside, and whoever finds the almond gets good luck for the next year (symbolized by a marzipan pig). Then there's the Julafton gift-giving, which in my family means opening one present on Christmas Eve and saving the rest for the morning. But my all-time favorite tradition is when we eat Pepparkakor cookies after Christmas Eve dinner.

What is Pepparkakor?

Pepparkakor is a Swedish ginger cookie, sort of like gingersnaps, but generally spiced a bit heavier. They are extremely thin (approximately 1/8") with a smooth finish. 

What's the History?

Pepparkakor is usually eaten around St. Lucia's Day on December 13, a celebration of St. Lucia, the martyr who brought food and aid to Christians hiding in catacombs, lighting her way with a wreath of candles on her head. 

The cookies can also be used to decorate Christmas trees. They generally come in basic shapes like hearts, but around Christmastime, they're also found shaped like the Swedish Christmas goat. If you haven't heard about the Christmas goat, you're missing out. Every year in Gävle, Sweden, a giant (40-ft by 20-ft) straw goat is erected in the middle of town around Christmas, a symbol of the holiday.

What's the Tradition?

Swedish custom says to place a Pepparkakor in the palm of your hand. Then you make a wish, and using the index finger or thumb of your other hand, tap the cookie in the middle until it breaks. Tradition says that if the pepparkakor breaks into three pieces, your wish will come true.

#SpoonTip: If it doesn't break into three on the first try, just try again. It's sort of cheating, but you get to eat more cookies that way, too.

My Family's Story

Our Christmas Eve is Swedish night because December 24 (Julafton) is the highlight of Christmas in Sweden. It's when Jultomte brings Christmas gifts to the house (think Santa Claus, but just a few hours early). For dinner that night, we eat plenty of Swedish meatballs, lingonberry sauce and bondost (the perfect snacking cheese), but we avoid the traditional lutefisk, a type of dried fish, at all costs. After the meal, we all go around the table cracking our pepparkakor and comparing techniques.

Pepparkakor is always fun to make at home (all you need are the classic sugar cookie ingredients plus molasses and holiday spices). It's also available for purchase at stores like IKEA if you want to try out the wishing tradition without any extra effort. But remember, it's just like a birthday wish: make sure not to tell your wish to anyone, or it won't come true!