By Marcia Kester Doyle
Every year after the Thanksgiving decorations came down, my mother would stock up on bags of flour and sugar to begin the process of making her famous Christmas spice cookies. They were a special treat in our family, developed from a recipe that had been handed down through many generations. No one knows exactly when the tradition began, but the cookies were already a holiday staple in my mother’s family during WWII when food was rationed and money sparse.
Staring at my mother’s worn index card with the spice cookie recipe written in her perfect cursive, I am reminded of the winter days we’d watch her drop heavy balls of dough onto the floured counter in the kitchen and vigorously roll out the sticky batter until it was thin enough for cookie cutters. Santas, candy canes, Christmas trees, holiday bells, reindeers, wreaths, mistletoe, snowmen, and stars had to be carefully lifted from the thin layer of dough and placed onto sheets of tin foil. It took two people to hold both ends of the foil and carry the raw cookies to the dining room table where they’d sit overnight.
The next day, we’d brush the cookies with a layer of milk to prevent the dough from bubbling and bake them in the oven until the edges were crisp, the centers soft and chewy. Once cooled, they were ready to be frosted—a task that involved the entire family. My sisters, brother and I would sit around the dining room table, ready to work, as Handel’s Messiah played softly in the background. In the center of the table were smaller bowls of raisins, sliced maraschino cherries, and M&M’s for decorating the cookies. My mother allowed each of us to make one just for ourselves, so we’d create multicolored cookies heaped with frosting and mounds of candy.
The week before Christmas, we would deliver the bright, cellophane-wrapped cookies to close friends and neighbors. As much as we enjoyed making the treats, it was even more fun to see the delighted expression on everyone’s faces when they received our special family cookies.
For years we continued this tradition. By the time my siblings and I were adults with families of our own, we brought our children over to my mother’s house to learn the art of decorating spice cookies. My mother would watch us with a smile, her hands tucked into her apron pockets dusty with flour.
Twenty years later, when Mom became too weak to stand for long periods at a time in the kitchen, my siblings and I took over the painstaking job of rolling out the dough and baking the cookies. We arranged our weekend schedules so that everyone in the family could be together on a Saturday afternoon to help. For hours we’d sit around the dining room table, reminiscing about holidays past and sharing funny stories about our childhood until our stomachs ached from laughter. My mother sat at the head of the table and listened, her once nimble fingers now trembling when she tried to smooth frosting over the cookies.
When Mom died at 87, I tucked the index card away in the old tin recipe box she’d given me, convinced that the cookies were too difficult and too time-consuming to bother making. I wondered how—and why—my mother took the time to bake them each holiday season when she was already busy volunteering at our church and raising four children.
I ignored the spice cookie recipe for several more years as a way to avoid the loss. Instead, I picked holiday recipes from Pinterest in the hopes that I could start a new Christmas tradition with my own children. But the cookies I baked never tasted as good as hers—as if I’d missed a key ingredient. Still, there was a deep well in my heart that ached to be filled with my mother’s gentle, encouraging voice when she taught me how to frost a reindeer cookie. She had been an intrinsic part of my life that I’d taken for granted, the only person who listened patiently with the understanding of a woman who’d been through similar circumstances, and whose opinion I valued above all others. I was unmoored by her death, set adrift without a rope to reach the shore.
It was after the birth of my first grandchild that I was able to acknowledge I’d been avoiding making Mom’s spice cookies the same way I’d been avoiding my grief, tucking the pain away in a tin box similar to the one my mother had given to me.
Over time, I realized I missed making the cookies with my family and the camaraderie we’d shared around the table on frosting days. Even more, I missed the spirit of giving handmade gifts that took time and patience to bake for the people in my life who mattered most.
I understood the time-consuming task of making hundreds of spice cookies during the busiest time of year. Not only was it my mother’s way of showing appreciation for the people she cared about, but she was also teaching us to embrace a tradition that connected our family to past generations. I wanted the same for my own granddaughter.
With her tiny fingers, my granddaughter slowly spreads the white frosting across a snowman-shaped spice cookie. Handel’s Messiah plays softy in the background, nutmeg, and clove mingling with the crisp scent of pine from our new Christmas tree. I hand her small bowls of raisins, M&M’s, and sliced maraschino cherries as she licks the extra icing from her thumb.
“Is this one okay, Nonni?” she asks, proudly holding up a cookie that is oozing with frosting and excess candies. I smile and wipe a smudge of icing from her chin.
“It’s more than okay. It’s perfect.”
GRANDMA’S CHRISTMAS SPICE COOKIES
4 cups sugar
1/2 pound butter, softened
Lemon zest from 1 lemon
1/2 cup milk
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp clove
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
6 cups flour
Mix all the ingredients together. Chill dough for several hours. Roll out on a floured surface and cut out Christmas shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies on greased baking sheets (or heavy-duty foil if you run out of pans) and let sit overnight. The next day, brush each cookie with a little milk and bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Make a simple frosting with 1 bag of confectioner’s sugar mixed with a little milk until it reaches spreading consistency. Separate frosting in several bowls, then add various food coloring to each bowl. Frost and decorate cookies with candies of your choice (raisins, M&M’s, sliced maraschino cherries, edible silver balls, colored sprinkles, etc.)
Marcia Kester Doyle writes about family life, middle age, and menopause. She is the author of the humor book, Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lash, and is currently at work on her first memoir. You can find her work at http://www.marciakesterdoyle.
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