Some traditions are just worth continuing. As far back as I can remember, my family has decorated cut-out Christmas cookies. Mom would spend a day mixing up the dough and letting it chill. The next day I helped her (and later my sister joined us) as she patiently cut out the shapes in the dough, lifting them carefully with a spatula onto a cookie sheet, setting it into the oven, wiping her hands on her apron and starting again–mashing the dough together, adding more fresh from the refrigerator, and rolling it out. She has always been a master with a rolling pin. The recipe says, “Roll the dough to 1/8 inch thick” and I have no doubt that her dough, spread across the counter, was 1/8 of an inch thick all the way across, without a wave to be seen. Soon the counter was covered with piles of white cookies–trees and little men and little women and Santas and reindeer and stars and holly leaves.
Finally came the evening of decorating. Mom would once again don her apron, gather the bags of confectioners sugar, some milk, some vanilla, her biggest mixing bowl, and her beaters. She divided the mound of white frosting into several small bowls. Food coloring created red, blue, yellow, and green, along with the requisite white. Each bowl had a spoon (for stirring) and a knife for decorating (“Careful! Don’t mix the colors!”).
Out of the cupboard came sprinkles and red hots and little silver ball decorations and coconut (of course, makes great snow!) and chocolate chips. Those and the bowls of frosting went into the center of the kitchen table. Each person got a dinner plate that served as the palette and working surface.
And a glass of milk. The rule was, of course, you break it, you eat it. And one needs milk to wash down one’s creation.
My dad would meticulously create his little cookie men–working hard first with the white frosting and then, with a toothpick, putting on the trademark blue stripes of a New York Yankees uniform. I loved to make the Christmas trees “jawbreaker” style with as many of those little silver balls as I could make stick into the green frosting–or make the “hot tamale” style covered with red hots. My sister–ever the artist–made creations we always oohed and ahhed over. Mom was in charge of keeping the supply of cookies and frosting coming, and dutifully moving the decorated cookies to another surface to harden.
She usually made her trademark fudge and some popcorn balls as well, and those, along with carefully chosen decorated cookies, ended up in baskets wrapped in plastic wrap and ribbon that my sister and I delivered to all the neighbors.
Across the years as men entered our lives, my sister and I got to christen them into the family cookie decorating tradition. My husband tried to create cookies with deformities (don’t ask); my sister’s husband, a diehard Red Sox fan, created a Red Sox cookie to give the Yankee a run for his money. As children were born, they too joined in the process as soon as their little hands could sprinkle the sprinkles or hold a short knife and spread the frosting.
And so, last week, the day after Thanksgiving, I donned my apron and stirred up a batch of sugar cookies, duly dividing the dough and putting it into the refrigerator to chill. The boys were home (with their girls) and after they did the Black Friday thing and slept in, they pulled the boxes from the basement and Christmas proceeded to throw up all over our house (sorry, I couldn’t help using the analogy–it’s so appropriate). As they decided to find a place for every Christmas item my husband and I have gathered over the last 28 years, put up the tree, and wrap the porch in lights, I started cutting, scooping, and baking. And baking. And baking.
Maybe quadrupling the recipe wasn’t such a good idea . . .
And baking. And baking . . . placing the carefully baked white cookies on a line of foil on the table, preparing for the next phase. I was so thankful that the kids were excited to decorate. I recounted to them a time (probably when they were all in junior high) when all three of my kids got too cool for such traditions and my husband and I had sat at the kitchen table by ourselves splatting frosting on a hundred cookies, leaving the creativity for another Christmas. This time would be different–and it was.
I got out the confectioners sugar, stirred up the green and red and blue (no yellow–where is that yellow? Darn, I’m reminded that yellow is a primary color and we can’t make it by mixing). One person tried to make purple and sort of got a brown color–which worked great for the bottoms of the Christmas trees. We got beautiful creations–Van Gogh-inspired decorated Christmas trees and some with three-dimensional lights (thanks to artfully dipped and placed marshmallows), along with a zombie and Frankenstein.
And they stayed with me till the bitter end, licking fingers, munching broken arms and heads, and, like my mom before me, I moved the decorated cookies to another flat surface to dry.
The cookies are already on their way to two colleges and their sets of friends. I have no doubt that by tonight, the cookies will all be gone. Eaten, no doubt, with plenty of milk.
Some traditions are worth continuing. Thanks mom and dad.
And so, the Christmas season has begun!