Christmas cookies have been a part of our family’s holiday tradition for as long as I can remember. Not some fancy store or bakery bought cookies, but homemade in our kitchen or the kitchen of friends or relatives. Some of my earliest memories are of me and my siblings helping mom decorate rolled-out sugar cookie dough that she prepared using the recipe from the ubiquitous Betty Crocker cookbook. Since Betty Crocker could be found in many if not most American homes in the mid 20th century, the recipe certainly wasn’t unique. What made those cookies special was the love that went into the decoration. We kept a collection of various colored sugars, jimmies, nonpareils, and dragee in the cupboard that we brought out each year and lined up on the counter at the ready. As Mom filled each baking tray with thin, bare Christmas trees, stars, bells, snowmen or gingerbread boys it was our job to embellish them, making each one an idiosyncratic representation of the decorator’s skill or flavor preference. They were barely out of the oven and moved to the wire rack to cool before we implored to try “just one” to make sure they were worthy of our efforts.
Though rolled sugar cookies were always a staple of holiday baking at our house, other cookies also found their way into the rotation each season. Snickerdoodles, peanut blossoms, soft chocolate cookies frosted with rich chocolate frosting, lemon bars, and seven layer bars were family favorites. The recipes for these may have indeed been found in a cookbook at one time or another, but the recipes Mom used for these were each written by hand on a little three by five card she kept in a small box in the cupboard. Over the years they had been tweaked and rewritten until the results suited those making the adjustments and have become part of our family traditions. I have made these for my own children over the years and have discovered new recipes to add to the collection.
My children are now grown and living thousands of miles away with work commitments that don’t always allow them to be “home” for Christmas. Sadly, home-baked cookies aren’t the same after a trip through the mail or parcel service. But that doesn’t deter me from assembling my favorite recipes, which always includes the Betty Crocker rolled-out sugar cookie recipe from the dogeared cookbook I received as a wedding gift. I have my own collection of colored sugars, jimmies and nonpareils in my pantry and a small recipe box with three by five cards on which I have copied my favorite family cookie recipes over the years. Now, with my husband’s help, I spend at least one whole day in December mixing, decorating, baking and frosting numerous batches of holiday cookies. We put together large plates of these home baked goodies and take them over to the local university just before finals week. We started this tradition with the Navy House where our daughter spent many nights studying when she was a ROTC student. We have since expanded it to the student fitness center on campus where much of the staff is comprised of student’s working part-time to help pay for their education. This year we are adding the Newman Center which has a Sunday evening Mass primarily for students.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without homemade cookies. And homemade cookies are a very personal way to share love during the holidays.