Christmas is a mostly happy series of memories for me. One thing I always associate with my memories of the season is Christmas cookies and Christmas offerings in general. From my early years in Burlington, VT, I recall my mother setting out a large bowl of mixed nuts in their shells. That meant one thing to me…the nutcracker! I was obsessed with that nutcracker and opening nuts. This worked out fine since my older brother was also happy to eat the nuts.
At our house we put out fresh slices of my mother’s cranberry bread for Santa along with a glass of milk. I can still smell and taste that cranberry bread. Large chunks of walnuts, fresh orange zest, and tart cranberries that made my mouth pucker. Just delicious. We also had a Christmas Eve dinner tradition of welsh rarebit. My father always referred to it as welsh rabbit so I was quite skeptical the first time it was served. My grandfather and father worked for a company headquartered in Wisconsin and they received cases of quart-sized containers of that lovely orange pub cheese to give to customers. But we always managed to have a few in the fridge. That was the basis of our welsh rarebit.
After moving to upstate NY it seemed my grandparents arrived each Christmas Eve with a huge (think the wardrobe-sized moving box) box of gifts. They also sent a food box from a place called the Epicure Club (think upscale Hickory Farms). My favorite in the box was the petit fours. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t want tiny layers of cake and frosting? The answer is my brother who was probably in his glory waving around a Brazil nut calling it by its politically incorrect name, as long as my parents weren’t in the room.
Bu high school I was baking my own confections and I made quite a variety: spritz cookies, cut out sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, fudge, russian teacakes, and truffles. I continued to do this throughout college and beyond. During these years I had a routine and an outfit. I’d cue up a few special albums on the turntable, put my Yankees hat on backwards, don an apron or more likely stuff a dishtowel in my waistband, and with my dachshund at my feet, I created. By the end, after I’d flipped the albums with flour-dusted hands, our dog stood at my feet with a coating of flour from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail. Her job of saving the floor from any extra batter or dough was complete.
As the years sped by, I did less and less baking at Christmas. But I revisited it in the mid 90s when I hosted my first Christmas Open House at my tony carriage house apartment. I called it a cookie party and it was basically coffee and cookies for my fellow English teachers. I was terrified that 12-13 wouldn’t fit into my small apartment. We did but it was close.
Over the next ten years the cookie party morphed into more of an extravaganza. I made a few varieties of cookies, fudge, and truffles. I added a veggie platter and crackers and cheese. By then 30-40 people traipsed in and out of my house. At my last house I’d gotten to buying a shrimp platter, veggie platter and fruit and cheese platter. And I just served traditional cut-out Christmas cookies and fudge. After ten years I packed it in. It was getting too expensive as much as I loved it.
Tonight I had to run out to do a late errand. As I drove home I admired all of the various Christmas decorations. Playing in the car was my nostalgic music which is different from my peers’ preferences. Out of nowhere, my eyes brimmed with tears. I let them fall, though it was a little difficult to see the road. From the recesses of my mind came a bittersweet memory. Since my time was tight prior to the cookie parties, a friend of mine would come and help me decorate the cut cookies. We did it on a Sunday afternoon the week of the party. I’d bake the cookies and mix up and tint the frosting. My friend arrived and we would spend that next few hours laughing and making up stupid jokes. The longer we worked, the sillier the cookies looked. Neither of us was blessed with artistic genes. But we loved decorating those darn cookies. We’d also pick an evening, pick up a couple of coffees at Dunkin Donuts and drive around town looking at the decorations. That’s what summoned this memory tonight.
I miss her. Almost six years ago, the stresses of life became too much for her and she chose to leave this world. I think of her often, of the times we spent laughing on the beach at Cape Cod or on the dock where I rented a camp during the summers. Even after being immersed in the Irish Catholic tradition of wakes and funerals from the time I was a tot, I couldn’t bring myself to attend her service. There was too much anger and grief that resided in me. But I visit her often in our local cemetery. It was a selfish thing for her to do, but knowing those desperate feelings all too well myself, I knew she felt it was her only solution. She’d had enough and went home to be with the loved ones who had gone before her. I miss her.
Raise a cookie to my friend, Tracy, this holiday season or raise one to someone missing from your life.
N.B. The verb tenses shift in this piece and I’m too tired to fix them.
PS – People seldom ate the cookies because they looked too nice. WTH?
PSS – an inside joke, each time we looked at a cookie with the word “ho” on it, we laughed. I still do.