I love the magic of Christmastime and the joy of all of our family traditions. From putting up our tree and talking about where and when we got each ornament, to the joy of finding treats from St. Nick on his feast day, to our drive through Tilles Park’s Winter Wonderland with my mom . . . I can’t imagine a year without them. And thankfully, despite the pandemic, these traditions can remain largely unchanged. Unfortunately, some traditions we hold dear will require a shift. Of all of the traditions or events that have to change this year (like Thanksgiving over Zoom), I think our Christmas cookie baking is the one that will be the hardest for me.
Every year when I was little, we would have a day off school for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And every year, that day was special, not because of the religious significance or because we didn’t have to go to school, but because that was the day we’d spend with my grandmother baking Christmas cookies. That day was filled with special aprons, generational recipes, and irreplaceable cookie cutters. It was a day filled with joyous laughter and “don’t eat the sprinkles!” It was a day where you might hear grandma say, “Hell’s fire!” when someone spilled the tiny silver balls all over the table, and you might get her gentle help as you learned how to use the cookie press. It was a day that my mother had shared with her grandmother, we shared with our grandmother, and now my girls and their cousins share with my mother.
My kids don’t go to Catholic school, and they don’t get the day off for the Immaculate Conception, so that part of the tradition had to change, but that’s it. In recent years we’ve baked on the first Saturday of December, gathering in my mom’s kitchen with all eight grandchildren, my siblings and their spouses, and the memories of years past. Since they were old enough to steal batter and hold a spoon with sugar sprinkles on it, the grandkids have enjoyed making many of the eleven different types of cookies that are tradition in our family. Yes, eleven, and none of them is chocolate chip. We make lebkuchen, pecan balls, sugar cookies, press cookies, gingerbread, Santas and stockings, anis, springerle, and the now-retired almond pretzels, brown sugar kisses, and cinnamon stars.
The kids love putting the silver candy balls on the top of the trees and the raisin eyes in the gingerbread. They are impatient, as we were, about putting the tiny chocolate sprinkles as eyes for the snowmen but are careful and meticulous as they paint the faces on the Santa cookies or the toys in the stockings. And just like when I was a kid, they still make at least one gingerbread person on a skateboard, another gingerbread person with a purse, and a gingerbread snake with silver eyes.
Perhaps what makes this day special, besides the history of it all, is the fact that we are together, working and laughing. My brother is an excellent dough mixer, my sister has the strength and precision for press cookies, my sister-in-law and I can pat down sprinkles with the best of them, and the kids are great helpers with all of it, even if they do get distracted and head off to play halfway through. For that one day, we all feel a little bit more of the joy and magic of the season.
This year, though, for the first time in my life, we had to work separately. There wasn’t laughter about how much flour grandma had on her bosom, scolding for sneaking too much dough, or the shared exhaustion when it came time to divide up dozens upon dozens of cookies for each family. There weren’t the memories spent together at Grandma’s; instead, we chose to forgo this tradition for the sake of the greater good, to preserve everyone’s health.
So what did we do instead? Each family made some cookies, and grandma made a lot. My girls were sad to miss the experience they so look forward to every year, and really we all were, but just because we take a year off doesn’t make the tradition any less meaningful. Perhaps next year will feel even more magical.