Christmas Cookies in Series: Recipe Booklets and the Annual Reinvention of a Tradition

By Reinhild Kreis

One of the early indicators that Christmas is just around the corner in Germany is the publication of Christmas cookies recipe booklets. Once it gets cold outside, readers are invited to heat up their ovens and ring in the holiday season by baking sweets. Many families have established traditions around annual Christmas baking – starting baking on a certain day, insisting on particular kinds of cookies, and even on the strict adherence to tried and tested recipes. The annual publication of special recipe booklets has become a tradition itself.

Many of these recipe booklets, whether distributed as advertising brochures of a particular brand or as removable special issues of a magazine, are designed as collectibles. Some are numbered and thereby marked as a part of a larger series, such as the Rezept-Sammlung of Dr. Oetker, a German brand for baking ingredients. The first issue of that series, which includes Christmas specials as well as brochures with recipes for other occasions, came out in the late 1980s. Other recipe booklets are promoted as annual special issues that readers can expect to be enclosed with the annual Christmas edition of a particular magazine. For example Brigitte, one of the leading women’s magazines in Germany offers just such a booklet every December.

The recipe booklets combine tradition and innovation. They are based on the long-standing practice of Christmas baking with its traditional specialties such as Vanillekipferl, Lebkuchen, or Zimtsterne, and familiar ingredients such as cloves, cinnamon, and gingerbread seasoning. Many booklets seek to continue and inscribe themselves into these traditions, not least by using headlines that looked as if they were written by hand or that quoted famous Christmas stories and poems. At the same time, in order to attract a large readership and be collectible item, each booklet of recipes have to be innovative and different from the previous years.

The booklets are intended to provide readers with much more than just recipes. They are designed to advertise lifestyles and products. Whether complimentary or attached to a commercial magazine, recipe booklets for Christmas cookies are aimed at selling. The free booklets from Dr. Oetker advertise the company’s products such as baking powder, chopped hazelnuts, and vanilla sugar by naming the brand product and by displaying images of the respective sachets on the same page as the recipe. Additionally, the booklets serve as advertising material for the company’s Back-Club (Baking Club). For a fee of then 18 DM, members of the club (est. 1989) received free samples of new Dr. Oetker products and the magazine Gugelhupf which was filled with recipes and other helpful information on cooking and baking.

The special issues attached to Brigitte, on the other hand, are designed to sell the magazine itself. Removable booklets are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Brigitte. Still in the 1970s, it was rare for the magazine to include any recipes for Christmas cookies, not to mention an entire booklet. At that point, recipes for Christmas cookies were perhaps too common and well-known to be used as a purchasing incentive. Such recipes became a regular feature and a removable collectible only in the 1990s. The first booklets had traditional titles such as “Baking from A-Z” and pictures of familiar cookies such as the Vanillekipferl on the cover (1994).

While initial issues stuck with established recipes and offered few surprises, the Brigitte booklets soon started to present a peculiar mixture of old and new types of cookies, often variations of old and well-known recipes. The issue from 2003, for example, juxtaposed each “classic”, for example Vanillekipferl or Bethmännchen, with a new variation such as “Orangen-Anis-Brezeln” (pretzel-shaped cookies with orange and anise) or “Gefüllte Marzipanmonde” (filled marzipan crescents). International recipes also made their way into the booklets. Furthermore, the booklets of both Dr. Oetker and Brigitte increasingly began to include recipes that required little time and experience, accompanied with additional how-to information for those new to baking.

These different sales strategies explain why advertising brochures in the form of recipe booklets such as Dr. Oetker’s have a longer history than special issues attached to magazines. Brands like Dr. Oetker want to sell their baking products each year anew, regardless of current baking trends, and therefore used brochures as a marketing strategy early on (the company started selling baking powder in 1893). For a magazine like Brigitte, however, special issues on baking only made sense after women were no longer expected to be (only) housewives. The “modern woman” often took on multiple roles and might only bake infrequently. Some did not possess a large collection of traditional recipes and others looked for new inspirations. This explains why it was only in the 1990s that the removable booklets have become an annual feature.

In many ways, the serialized recipe booklets are a substitute for family recipes once passing from generation to generation. It is no longer the mother or grandmother whose experience guarantees success but rather the long-established brand and its test kitchens. The Brigitte booklets, which do not promote ingredients of particular brands, prominently introduce their test kitchen personnel and emphasize that the recipes are well-tried and tested before inclusion in the booklet.[1] Every year, just when it starts to get cold outside, they tap into the longing for tradition and remind their readers that it is finally time to roll up their sleeves and to get ready for the Christmas season.

[1] The same holds true for the internet presences of both Dr. Oetker and Brigitte which usually mention the test kitchens. See here for Dr Oetker and here for Birgitte, (last accessed on Dec 18, 2018).

All booklets and magazines featured in the photos here are in the collection of Reinhild and her mother. Photos are author’s own.