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Texas Christmas Fare

Cowboy Christmas snapshot
by John Raven, Ph.B.

The way lots of Texans celebrate Christmas has evolved from European traditions, mainly the Germans. The largest influx of German immigrants to Texas started about 1850.

Perhaps the most well known German Christmas item is the Christmas tree. Trees were used in Europe as a symbol of life and promise. In old country Germany, Christmas is known as Weihnachten. This translates roughly to "good night or evening." The European Christmas was celebrated on what is now Christmas Eve. After a day of preparations, the family would go to church and when they returned, the living room was closed and no one admitted until a bell rang which signaled the departure of the Christ Child. Before St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, the Christ Child delivered the presents. When the bell sounded, the family entered the room, and there were presents for everyone.

Texas Christmas celebrations in the old days included the whole family -- mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and all the kids. The Christmas abendessen (Christmas dinner) was much like the regular Sunday dinner, but with more and better food. As with all pioneer societies, the German Texans ate what was available. More than likely the main course at the earliest Texas German Christmas celebrations was pork. The hog was easy to raise and produced a lot of meat for the investment. The turkey did not really become popular until the Civil War. A turkey would feed a lot more hungry soldiers than a chicken and could be found nearly anywhere.

Texas Christmas dinner has evolved into pretty much standard fare through the years. The turkey is the star of the program. Cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes and potato salad are near required. Green beans, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are regular included items. The Tex-Mex influence includes tamales on a lot of Texas Christmas menus. At family gatherings, the host provided the turkey with dressing and gravy. The guests contributed their favorite side dishes to the meal. After a few years, everyone knew what each family member's specialty was, and there was seldom any duplication of dishes.

My family had a food serving routine that was probably the norm for the period. While the food was being placed on the dining table, an area for the kids had card tables set up to accommodate them. After the blessing, the kids were sent around the table to fill their plates, which they took to the "kids' table". Then the men folk were seated at the table. After they were all full, the women took over the table. The women always spent the most time at the table, since there was plenty of time for conversation and relaxation from the day's work. When the women finished, the food was covered and left on the table so that anyone wanting a second or third helping could find it without having to dig through the icebox.

There was always a dessert table. Here was where all the sweet treats were served. Cakes, pies and cookies were the standard items. There was always at least one Texas pecan pie.

Christmas Sweet Treats

This seems like a good time to talk about some of the sweets and provide a couple of recipes. The desserts were always referred to as "sweets," I guess because they were all sweet. The cakes tended to be of the chocolate variety with chocolate icing. In later years, the sheet cakes with Jello in them began to show up. They tasted good and were attractive.

Pies could vary. My mother had a special lemon pie. One of the aunts had a chocolate pie. I do not remember who specialized in the pecan pies, but they were always everyone's favorite.

Sugar cookies were the favorite until the chocolate chips came out. It's hard to beat a good chocolate chip cookie. A lot of times there was a banana pudding.

Spice Cake

Through the years, my favorite cake came to be one that was out of my mother's antique cookbook. It is a spice cake with raisins and pecans.
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 cups raisins
Cream butter and sugar together. Add the eggs and combine well. Sift together dry ingredients and add alternately with the water. When everything is combined, add the raisins and nuts that have been dredged in a little flour. Mix well. Place in a greased loaf pan, and bake in a preheated 320°F oven about two hours. [Author's note: Don't even try this without real butter. It makes all the difference in the world. Also, make sure your spices are fresh.]

Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-2/3 cup pecans
  • 1 unbaked 9-inch piecrust
Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together the first five ingredients in a medium bowl to blend. Mix in 2/3 cup pecans. Pour into crust. Sprinkle with remaining 1 cup pecans. Bake pie until set, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cool on rack. [Author's note: There are a lot of variations on this recipe, but this is as close to the original as they come. It is very rich and a little bitty slice goes a long way.]


Here is an authentic cookie recipe from the old country. It is sort of like gingerbread but not quite. You are not restricted to making them square or round. You can use your cookie cutters to get seasonal shapes and then decorate them with what seems proper.
  • 2-2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts
  • 3/4 cup chopped candied citron
Sift flour, measure and sift again with the dry ingredients.

Heat together the honey and brown sugar until sugar dissolves. Cool. Stir in the egg, lemon rind and juice.

Beat in dry ingredients until smooth. Add nuts and citron. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill overnight.

Roll out dough 1/4 inch thick and cut into approximately 1-1/2-inch squares, or do like me and use a glass to cut them. Place on greased cookie sheets. Bake at 350°F from 12 to 15 minutes. When cookies are done, spread or brush them with glaze (recipe follows). Makes about 3 dozen cookies. (Mine make 2 dozen).

Simple Glaze

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • dash of salt
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
Cook granulated sugar and water until it reaches 215°F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and add salt and confectioners' sugar. Brush tops of cookies to glaze them, using a pastry brush.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my Texas Cooking friends.

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