For the month of December, Joan Chittister has been focusing on the role of traditions in our lives in her pamphlet, The Monastic Way. On December 11 she said:
Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.
Chittister left out the best tradition of all from her examples – Christmas cookies! My mom baked at least a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies every December. One reason for so many cookies is that my parents were in a mixed marriage – my mom was Norwegian and my dad was German – so my mom felt obligated to bake both Norwegian and German cookies. Plus, she always liked to try out new recipes. I loved all the Norwegian cookies. The German cookies – not so much. My mom faithfully made the same Korth recipe for peppernuts every year, and every year they turned out the same – as hard as a rock. We let them age for at least a month, because no one ate them (except my dad dunked a few in his coffee), and then we threw the rest of them out for the birds.
Some of my fondest Christmas memories are spending a couple evenings every December decorating both light and dark cookie cutouts (sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies). My mom frosted each cookie and Danny and I carefully decorated them with every color of sugar my mom could find – red, green, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and multicolor nonpareils. We also used red-hot candies, and little silver and gold balls. Sometimes we would even cut up red and green gum drops to make leaves and berries to decorate wreathes. Our cookies were almost too beautiful to eat, although that never stopped us.
By Christmas we had stacks of cookie tins filled with hundreds of cookies. Even though we ate heartily, there’s no way we would ever eat that many cookies. But my mom had a better idea anyway. Just before Christmas she boxed up a selection of cookies for a lot of the older people in Cambridge who didn’t bake their own Christmas cookies, and we made a delivery run a day or two before Christmas.
When I was in my twenties and living with Mim in Chicago, baking Christmas cookies together was one of the first traditions we established. We had to negotiate on whose recipes to use. Over the years we’ve worked it out. We use her mom’s recipe for Krumkake and my mom’s recipe for Berliner Kranzer. We carried over the tradition of making lots of different kinds of cookies – more than we could possibly eat – and solved that problem by hosting the coffee hour after church the Sunday closest to Christmas. Our Lutheran church in Chicago had lots of retired Swedes as members, and Norwegian cookies were close enough to Swedish to bring back pleasant memories on their taste buds.
When we were in our forties we moved back to the farm in Cambridge. Soon afterwards, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on one side. She came to live with us for the next five years. I can still picture her sitting at the dining room table in her wheelchair, rolling out Kringla, a doughnut-like soft Norwegian cookie, rolled by hand into a pencil-like shape and twisted to look like a pretzel. She also helped us decorate cookies. One day our youngest niece Emily joined us to work on decorating cookies together. What better activity to bring multiple generations together than decorating Christmas cookies!
Seven years ago, when we moved to our condo, my sister Nancy, who lived nearby, came over to spend a day baking Christmas cookies together. I think we baked about six different kinds in that one long day. By the end of the day we were exhausted, but we had something beautiful and delicious to show for our efforts. And it was fun working together, using the cookie-baking skills we had learned from our mother. The next year my sister passed away. Last year around Christmas time Mim and I went to see our niece Michelle, Nancy’s daughter. She served us Christmas cookies – just the like ones her mom used to make. The tradition continues.
Cindy, my brother’s daughter, is also carrying on the Christmas cookies tradition. Even though Cindy is gluten intolerant, she enlists her nieces to help her bake and decorate some of the most beautiful cookies I’ve ever seen.
Joan Chittister has it right –
Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees, [the Christmas cookies!] – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.
Now I need to get back to baking cookies. We’re trying three new recipes this year, plus baking most of our family standards. I plan to bring a selection to my brother’s family. I guess I might pack up a few cookie tins for some friends, too. But I don’t think I have to worry about the cookies not getting eaten. Our 93-year-olds like our Christmas cookies just as much as our youngest nieces and nephews, and the next generation beyond them…