Why Christmas cookies are bittersweet to my brother and me

christmas cookies and candy canes

By Elizabeth Creaswick

It was early Saturday morning. The sun had yet to rise. In our PJs with chilled bare feet, we were breathless with concentration. We tried to make as little sound as possible as we crept down each painted wooden step to the basement. I always hated that basement and avoided it whenever possible. Its chill originated from more than cold. Foreboding spirits lurked behind cardboard boxes and lifted the hairs off my arms. But that day I had a partner in crime and a mission. My brother and I were willing to face the spooks if it meant we might find treasure.

We didn’t need a map. We only had to make it to the white deep freezer that was normally home to butcher shop orders and Dad’s favorite loaves of bread he bought en mass in the city so he’d never run out. That day, for two eager kids, the freezer was home to untold delights. Neatly arranged Christmas cookies, of the likes we’d never tasted, were laid out like sweets in a shop. Cookies with sprinkles, chocolate drizzles, maraschino cherries, and colored glazes all spun and twirled before our eyes like sugar plum fairies gliding across a stage…trying to conceal the fractured backdrop behind them.

That Christmas we didn’t know if my mom would be home. We knew where she was, but we didn’t know why. My mom was in the hospital in a city about two and a half hours away. In our desolate whisper of a town, surrounded by fields flatter than pancakes, everyone talked about everyone else’s business, but no one talked to us about why our mom was sick. 

Thinking back a few months earlier, there’d been the shattered china dog. It lay in jagged pieces on the brown and avocado patterned linoleum floor. Mom had painted the dog in art class. I pitied the poor creature who’d been sacrificed by emotions she couldn’t handle.

My ten-year-old self missed the symbolism. A fractured spirit. A broken soul desperate to escape the prison of a miserable town and a tortured mind. In early fall, the leaves were withering, floating away on the wind, and they tried to take my mom with them.

Growing up, no one talked about mental health. I’m pretty sure I’d overhead that some people went “crazy” and ended up somewhere called a “nuthouse.” I was familiar with arguing, yelling and fighting. Fits of manic cleaning that spiralled into sobs of rage. I didn’t know it was called mental illness. I just knew that my mom was in the hospital, and she might not come home for Christmas.

The cookies showed up by the tray full. People in town assumed with my mom gone we wouldn’t have any Christmas baking. They had no idea that she didn’t do Christmas baking. Our sugar intake was severely restricted. Mom had established a non-refined sugar diet before it was ever a trend. So my brother and I welcomed the cookies with open mouths. There were so many that Dad put them down in the freezer. He was probably trying to preserve more than the cookies that season. I imagine he was embarrassed by the generosity, but also because people in the town knew that my mother “wasn’t well.”

Dad brought us to visit her once. The ward was locked. I remember standing nervously outside a steel door where we had to buzz in. I also recall a lot of white, and my mom yelling at my dad…words were never innocent. That astringent place held none of the warmth, cheer or colors associated with Christmas. It was the exact opposite, and somehow it saved her.

That year, my mom did come home for Christmas and she stayed. We tried to be on our best behavior and didn’t complain about taking awkward family photos beside the unlit fireplace and the fake Christmas tree. We only knew part of the story behind the strained smiles.

Many days into the New Year, my brother and I would sneak down into the basement on cartoon Saturday mornings. We’d fill our hands with remainders of the bittersweet Christmas cookies. With crumby fingers we’d savor them in front of the TV, where we sat oddly guilty knowing this might be the last year we’d be able to enjoy them.

Elizabeth Creaswick weaves her past careers in teaching and government into her current work as a freelance writer. She loves making crafts and spending time in the land of make-believe with her two daughters. She bakes Christmas cookies every year with her daughters, and her favourite kind are sugar cookies decorated like ugly Christmas sweaters.

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