The holidays can be a tough time for folks, I know – there’s the stress of shopping, there’s cold and dark and nasty weather, there’s expectations that can’t be met. And yet…I love the holidays (pretty much all holidays, except for St. Patrick’s Day, but especially the fall and winter holidays). I love lights and food and gathering with friends and family. I especially love holiday traditions. There’s something magical to me about doing the same thing, year after year in celebration with the same people; it’s like the goodwill builds and grows with each repetition. It’s comforting and powerful. Whether it’s reading the Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve (and my father still does this with my niece and nephews every year), or putting a favorite ornament on the tree, it just makes everything a bit more meaningful to me, that chain of years behind the moment.
So I was pondering this here Christmas Eve blog post, and I didn’t have a clever Christmas poem for you, or an amazing Christmas craft to teach you. But I do have this, one of my very favorite traditions – our annual cookie decorating party. I’ll share it with you and who knows, maybe you’ll start this tradition, too.
Many folks decorate Christmas cookies, but what I like about how we do it is that other little rituals and traditions have sprung up around this event. It started about eight years ago – I’d been baking cookies for folks as gifts and quickly realized that while decorating a few cookies is really fun, decorating several dozen quickly become tedious, a nightmare of food coloring and sugar that you’ll be scrubbing out of your hands (and hair, and table) for weeks. So I thought, hey, I’ll recruit some friends to help, make a little party out of it, let folks take some home and package up the rest.
Eight years later it’s a 50 person event and nearly every cookie goes that night. There’s also a competitive aspect, complete with voting and prizes, and a lot of other food and merriment. Not every attendee decorates cookies, but that’s okay – the party has become my gift.
One of the side traditions is that, the night before, my sister Kelly comes over and helps me roll, cut, and bake all of the cookies. Yes, this has grown so monstrous that not only do I need help decorating, I need help baking the cookies. We have an entire system and strategy to bake over 100 sugar cookies. This year Tiny Doom and The Goog came over and helped, and thus the ritual grows and strengthens into a two-day event of friends and fun. (Because we were really efficient, and they will never be allowed to quit after this.) They roll and cut, I run and oversee the oven. It’s a bigger job than you’d think – those pans need to be rotated or you’ll get weird, half-tanned, half-soggy cookies.
The day of, I mull wine, which is a great way to make your house smell amazing AND make your cheap wine more enticing and delicious than your nicer bottles. The past few years Tiny Doom and I have started making food that you can keep in the crock-pot – this year it was macaroni and cheese and chili – to add some warmth, comfort, and something a little heartier than chips and a cheese plate. And then the madness begins.
The cookies are bright and colorful, and strictly speaking, aren’t always Christmas-themed. I have a LOT of cookie cutters, and who’s to say that a skull and crossbones or a chicken aren’t totally valid holiday shapes? Then, of course, there are the folks who take the original shape and repurpose it, turning a gingerbread zombie into an octopus, or a pair of hearts into something a bit less delicate. (We have a separate, earlier children’s portion of the evening, in part due to the sheer number of “erotic” cookies.)
Every year, it’s a lot of work, and it can be stressful to get everything done – the house cleaned, cookies baked, food prepared, prizes selected (and none of it would be possible without Mr. Menace, who picks up ingredients and does about 95% of the cleaning). But there’s always a moment, about halfway through, when I can finally relax and just listen to the buzz of the conversation around me, marvel at two people who never met before laughing over a cookie, or seeing friends who’ve been apart for a while catching up, and every year, it fills me with joy.
If you’re a Christmas or holiday lover, what are some of your favorite traditions? Is there something special that gets you into the holiday spirit? If you really like looking at pictures of cookies, you can look at some similar posts I wrote for my old blog here and here. I didn’t actually re-read those before writing this, so you can do a fun exercise of seeing how similar or different they are, three and four years on.
And hey, click here for the recipe I use, from the wonderful Flour Cookbook by Joanne Chang. If you live in the Boston area and haven’t already visited Flour, GO.