As kids, we learned to define a holiday by its traditions: a neighborhood parade and fireworks for Independence Day, costumes and trick-or-treating for Halloween, turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Christmas might have had more traditions than all the other holidays put together. I’ve previously written about such hallowed activities as purchasing and trimming a fresh tree, putting up lights and displays and, as an adult, braving blizzards and state lines to visit my folks.
Such rituals, however, barely graze the bottomless cornucopia of what makes Christmas complete. Not only did we schlep home a fresh tree every year, Mom would also handcraft a distinct set of ornaments (albeit usually from a kit): wooden painted Disney figures, painstakingly cross-stitched trinkets, little “people” constructed from clothespins and felt (I was always partial to the lady cellist because her eyes ended up a bit googly.) She’d also lay out my grandmother’s nativity on the dining room’s built-in buffet shelf while Dad and I put up the vintage Lionel train set I inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene around the tree. We’d watch nearly all the television specials that, in those pre-cable, pre-VCR days you had but one chance to view in real time when they aired, from the unimpeachable A Charlie Brown Christmas to whatever was trendy that year (even Pac-Man was deemed worthy of one.) Mugs of hot chocolate, glasses of eggnog, the brass angel display that spun when the heat from a lit candle was applied underneath, the red (or green) bulb Dad would place in the front porch light fixture—it simply wasn’t Christmas without each and every one of these traditions.
The most anticipated and certainly tastiest of them all were the many batches of cookies Mom made (and still makes to this day.) The rest of the year, we’d have your standard Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter varieties, perhaps Oatmeal Raisin if mom was so moved. December was strictly for the season, even if it was as elemental as changing the chips from milk to mint chocolate or sprinkling colored sugar on the peanut butter ones. Actually, even those somewhat paled next to the extra special varieties, the ones that took more effort. Many came from ten-to-thirty-year-old cookbooks my mom wouldn’t consult for anything else—some of them were even exclusively devoted to Christmas cookies, published by and made available for free from the Wisconsin Gas Company every season. I was astonished a few years back to discover my mom had hung onto a book from 1953 that appeared to have been run through the dishwasher multiple times.
From such tomes came recipes for delicacies like Pecan Fingers, Rum Balls and that famous holiday staple, the Gingerbread Man. I believe this is also where the beloved, dreaded Pinwheels came from—adored for their complex taste and texture of chocolate and vanilla dough swirled together as its name dictates, abhorred because it was a particularly difficult, time-intensive cookie to make (even my grandmother, a masterful baker often groused about the process.) Much simpler (but no less delicious) were Almond Shortbreads topped with apricot or raspberry jam and Cream Cheese “Spritz” cookies, their dough (often enhanced with red or green food coloring) stuffed into a tube in a machine that would emit perfect spheres onto the baking sheet while unnervingly making a noise resembling a protracted, if finite scream.
Even without any of these varieties, it’d still be Christmas as long as we had a few batches of iced and decorated sugar cookies, so essential that as a child I simply referred to them as “Christmas Cookies” (as if everything else was ancillary.) A week or two before the 25th, Mom would mix together two batches of the dough and refrigerate them overnight to allow for hardening. The next afternoon, she’d remove them from the cold to briefly thaw, then bring out her massive plastic rolling pin usually filled with water to give it some weight. She’d clear off and clean the kitchen table, sprinkle it with a fistful of flour, then roll out the dough to the perfect width—not too thick or thin. Then, out came the cookie cutters, seasonal shapes such as bells, trees, candy canes (which could also double for the letter J), angels, wreaths, stars and of course, Santa Claus himself. She’d cut the shapes, lay them out on baking sheets and place in the oven for eight to ten minutes.
The fun began once the baked shapes cooled. We’d set up a mini-assembly line of sorts: mom would spread white icing on each cookie, then hand it to me for decorating. I’d sit at the table with a large spread of aluminum foil or plastic wrap before me and an array of shakers and plastic containers with spoons. What a smorgasbord I had to choose from: chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles (or “jimmies” as we called them), a rainbow of sugars (definitely green and red, but also yellow, blue and occasionally pink), tiny cinnamon candies, even tinier crunchy, crystalized multicolored dots of sugar, walnut pieces and, if we had any leftover, some chocolate chips. It was my job to make sure we had a suitable variety of different colors and textures on various shapes. As the excess sugar and sprinkles accumulated on the foil or plastic, I’d occasionally place a cookie on top of the mess, generating a baked good equivalent of the zombie concoction one could devise at a restaurant’s do-it-yourself soda stand, mixing together all available flavors simply because you could. Mom wasn’t a fan of my zombie décor but she preferred it to those times when I’d place two chocolate chips on an angel shape, anticipating that infamous cone bra Madonna would adorn years later.
I was allowed to enjoy a cookie here and there in the days leading up to Christmas Eve when Mom would bring out her loaded, multi-tiered dessert display stand and all bets were off. The next 48 hours and beyond were for eating cookies day and night, along with boxes of chocolate covered cherries and, when I was a bit older, fancy petit fours my parents would procure from a mail order catalog. We’d also make sure to put some out for Santa (along with an obligatory bowl of sugar for his reindeer); I recall earnestly asking my parents one year if he’d like any Rum Balls, a bit uncertain whether it was appropriate to bequeath him something with a presumed alcohol content. We always had enough cookies to last us through New Year’s Eve. By then, the three of us, close to crashing from our extended sugar high, my folks struggling to make it to Midnight (but enjoying a few Brandy Alexanders regardless), would finish off whatever was left and resign ourselves to a bright New Year of diets and other resolutions, quietly anticipating Valentine’s Day where cards and chocolates and perhaps some store-bought cookies would have to suffice.