I haven’t been in the most effusive of holiday sentiments over the past several Christmases, ever since I sold my empty nest with the two living rooms and the five bedrooms and the fireplace and downsized to a space that’s got room for two people in the kitchen and four in the living room…if they’re all standing up.
I haven’t been in Ebeneezer Scrooge territory…quite. But sharing this small space with the large dog and two cats has made for an easy excuse to not put up any traditional Christmas decorations for the past three years.
This was quite a departure from the former life, I’ll have you know, which featured colorful needlepointed stockings hung by the chimney with care and stuffed with chocolate and little gifts, and a nine foot “real” fir tree festooned with glass ornaments and colorful lights and strands of wooden “cranberries” and a plethora of small critters such as birds and raccoons. I don’t know if I could locate those Christmas stockings in a hurry now. I’m pretty sure they’re SOMEWHERE down in the basement, along with all the garland and the ribbons and the big plastic Santa that lights up and the Christmas ornaments I actually embroidered once in an earlier life oh, about a quarter century ago.
No, going into Christmas this year felt pretty much like going into the season every Christmas since I moved. Low key, with a touch of humbug.
And yet…I still was in the chute to bake Christmas cookies. Not because I had anyone else in the house to eat them with (although Lucky, the dog, would need not a second’s thought to wolfing them down if they fell to the floor). But because I knew I would be seeing two of my four grown-up children and the grandkids over the holiday, and wanted to share that link to a more festive, less complicated past. And also, even more, because the other two kids were living half a country away, and I obstinately wanted to give them that taste of the past as well, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.
And so a week before my “got to get it in the mail today” deadline, I pulled out my little mixer and my favorite recipes (usually undisturbed since I literally almost never cook anymore), and began to conjure up the Spirit of Christmas Past.
I began with the easiest recipe, for toffee bars, which is the batch that just needs one bowl, one baking pan and no cookie sheets, and got that out of the way. One batch down, two to go I thought as I snuck toffee bar after toffee bar out of the pan and scarfed down the rich, chocolate, buttery flavor. (I would eventually have to make a second “replacement” pan…)
A couple of days later, the traditional butterballs were on the list. Midway up the line in complexity and the capacity to fill the kitchen counter with powdered sugar, I efficiently lined them up on baking parchment, watched them through the oven window until the tops began to crack, and then quickly dredged them one by one through a bowl of sifted powdered sugar before they stopped steaming.
And then, finally, the cut-out butter cookies beckoned. The ones with the cookie cutters. And the icing. And the sprinkles and candies. The ones that my children decorated like little bloody Christmas Axes during the first Christmas after the divorce.
Now, a word about baking in my life, and baking cookies in particular. It has been something of a “through line” in my life since childhood, harkening back to when I was a little girl and would bake cakes with my Aunt Patsy. Through ups and downs, over years and traumas and stress, the action of pushing ingredients around in a bowl with a hand mixer to create sweet tasting magic has been a touchstone for me. (Read my essay “Cookie Therapy,” it explains A LOT!!)
Baking with my children over the years—making cakes, pies, chocolate chip cookies by the millions, Christmas cookies with sprinkles and sugar—always brought me a quiet sort of rapturous joy. And for them, self-expression in myriad ways. I recall one cookie making adventure that ended in a “flour fight” as the kitchen rang with their laughter. Then, of course, there is the tale of the iconic “Christmas Axe” cookies, which took on a creative life of its own, as the kitchen rang afterward with MY laughter.
And so into the home stretch I trod bravely, following familiar steps of creaming the butter and the sugar, adding the vanilla and almond extract, beating in the egg and then the flour to create a familiar magic. And what magic it WAS. Because as I flitted between counter and refrigerator and table and recipe box, I realized that I was SINGING, and I was DANCING. In my kitchen. All alone but for the dog who stared up at me from his comfy pad beneath the table as if I’d lost my mind but he still loved me.
Granted, I wasn’t singing to a Christmas carol but to the peppy beat of “Hard Candy” by Counting Crows, but still. The nearest thing to it was the scene in “Love, Actually” where Hugh Grant, playing the new British Prime Minister, finds himself suddenly boogeying through No. 10 Downing Street to the strains of the Pointer Sisters. It was nuts. It was thoroughly unexpected. It was GREAT!!
Eventually I quit dancing long enough to roll out the cookie dough and fashion some traditional snowman and gingerbread man shaped cookies and a few T-Rex and turkey cut-outs as well. As I boxed them up and got them ready to mail, I felt like I was putting a piece of my heart in there along with all the sugar and a pair of chocolate Santas.
The mixer and bowls and recipe box and cookie sheets have all been put away by now, but I still marvel at whatever alchemy caused such a spark of exuberance and joy in my heart on that day. I think it was pretty much the cookies, and the synapses they fired linking back to joys of motherhood and Christmas past.
I’m still smiling about it. I’m already thinking that maybe, just maybe, next December I may spring for a very small Christmas tree and break out a few of the old ornaments. And of course, I’ve now got a year to find that one particular cookie cutter that makes Christmas Axes.