Before climbing into bed, visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, millions of children will set out a plate of cookies and milk for their favorite friend in a red suit.

The Christmas Eve ritual of leaving a snack out for Santa – and maybe a carrot or two for his reindeer – usually involves sugar cookies or gingerbread, along with a glass of milk or eggnog. But some Maine families are putting their own twist on the tradition.

Chefs and their children, and others in the restaurant industry, actually put some thought into what Santa might like to munch on as he makes his way around the world rooftop by rooftop. Santa sometimes gets an upgrade from ordinary sugar cookies, and other times he’s offered a more savory bite.

Seamus and Finnigan Corry, the sons of Steve and Michelle Corry, owners of the Portland restaurants Five Fifty-Five and Petite Jacqueline, have been setting out cookies and milk for Santa, and carrots and lettuce for the reindeer, for most of their young lives. But this year, their family started a discussion about how Santa must get tired of eating the same thing all the time. So 7-year-old Seamus decided that he’ll offer Santa his own favorite food – hot dogs. That’s after rejecting the idea of a bowl of steamed mussels as impractical. (And a side debate over whether elves prefer sweet or savory food.)

Along with the hot dogs, Santa will get a bowl of mustard AND ketchup, since no one knows which he prefers. To drink, there will be a cup of hot coffee.

Five-year-old Finn’s contribution? A bowl of hummus to go with the reindeer’s veggies. And, oh yes, “I love you Santa” must be written in ketchup on Santa’s plate.

Four-year-old Jackson Walker, son of Justin and Danielle Walker, makes sugar cookies for Santa using only the best ingredients – duck eggs, local butter. It’s not surprising the kid has a good palate. His parents have both worked in the restaurant industry for years. His father is now executive chef at Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, and his mother is the general manager there.

On a recent family trip to Barcelona, Jackson downed razor clams, saltwater snails, tripe, baby squid, mantis prawns and fried rabbit ribs, among other fare that’s usually adults only – at least in this country.

“My son loves food,” Justin Walker said. “He’ll eat everything and anything.”

The Walkers’ family Christmas Eve tradition, usually shared with their five horses, has now been extended to Santa’s reindeer, at Jackson’s request. Every Dec. 24, in addition to making sugar cookies, the Walkers make “horse cookies” from shredded carrots, oats and honey. They give some to the horses, some to the goats and leave some out for the reindeer. After Jackson has gone to bed, Justin Walker makes “deer tracks” in the snow with his fingers, just like his own father did for him.

“And then Christmas morning, we make molasses tea and get peppermint for the horses,” Walker said. “Horses love peppermint candy. They love it. If you go in any barn and crinkle Brach’s peppermint candy in your pocket every horse in there will be staring at you. They know exactly what that means.”

The molasses tea is simply molasses and water.

“It’s just really nice to give to them as a treat because it’s sweet and warm,” Walker said.

Briana and Andrew Volk, the owners of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, have been thinking about what kind of tradition they want to start for their 8-month-old daughter Oona.

They serve Scandinavian food at their craft cocktail bar, and Briana is Finnish, so perhaps it’s no surprise that their version of Santa is too. According to Finnish Christmas tradition, Santa lives in the Lapland region of Finland.

“We call him Joulupukki,” Briana Volk said. “We make a batch of homemade cookies; sugar cookies, pecan bars, thumbprint cookies and shortbread, leaving Santa a variety so he can choose, depending on his mood. We also leave a couple carrots for Rudolph because he’s going to be super hungry from all the flying. And since Santa is probably very thirsty, we plan on leaving him either some eggnog or Champagne.”

Why do children leave Santa food and drink on Christmas Eve? Some people believe the idea springs from the traditions surrounding Sinterklaas, a figure based on Saint Nicholas whose birthday is celebrated on Dec. 5. Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in November, on a steamship from Spain that is filled with gifts for children, according to Raymond Brunyanszki, owner of the Camden Harbour Inn and the Danforth Inn in Portland, where he is preparing to open a new restaurant. Brunyanszki grew up in the Netherlands.

On the night before Dec. 5, Dutch children leave their shoes in front of the fireplace filled with snacks for Sinterklaas, his helper and his white horse that carries him from rooftop to rooftop.

“We would always put a big winter carrot in the shoe with sugar cubes for the horse, and then for Sinterklaas we would always do some sweets and cookies,” Brunyanszki recalled.

Brunyanszki’s favorites were speculaas filled with marzipan; he says it’s the holiday treat from home that he misses most here in the United States.

Overnight, Sinterklaas’ helper comes down the chimney and takes the carrots and treats from the children’s shoes, replacing them with gifts.

“If you’ve been good, you get a gift, and if you’ve been bad, you get coal in your shoes,” Brunyanszki said. “If you’ve been very bad, they would take you to Spain in a big bag.”

The comment elicits immediate laughter. Being whisked away to Spain is a punishment? Hasn’t Sinterklaas ever heard of jamon iberico?

“Most people here think that would be a fun trip,” Brunyanszki agreed.


Although the cookies are intended for horses, not to mention Santa’s reindeer, curious children like to try them too. If you’re baking for kids, not just animals, increase the brown sugar to ¼ cup and use honey, not molasses. For the flour, chef Justin Walker combines ½ cup white whole wheat flour, ¼ buckwheat flour and 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal; or you can use wheatgerm in place of the flaxseed. Also, Walker adds raisins on occasion and cuts back on the sugar.

1 cup oats

¾ cup flour

¼ cup cornmeal

1 cup shredded carrots

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 tablespoons corn oil

¼ cup water

¼ cup molasses or honey or both

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper.

Mix ingredients in a bowl in the order listed. Add a tad more water if using flaxseed meal or wheat germ; it shouldn’t make a sticky dough, however.

Form the dough into small balls. Place on prepared cookie sheet. Press flat with fork.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.