Reminiscence, remembrance…these are words of the heart as well as the mind. Words which resonate deep within, in those places where we store all of the most precious pieces of our lives, in that treasure chest from which we can retrieve them again and again, fingering them with our feelings and re-living the sights, sounds, smells as scene after scene becomes real and alive once more.
Such were my thoughts this past weekend as I stood in my one-person kitchen, baking Christmas cookies. Now, I know almost everyone bakes some special cookies at this time of year, but in my family, Christmas baking has always been taken to its extremity, with days and days and days devoted to the preparation of these once-a-year treats.
I don’t recall how much my great-grandmother baked, though she was in my life until I was nineteen, but since my mother and I lived with my mom-mom and pop-pop for the first four years of my life during World War II, I can see and feel and smell the kitchen of their small row-house for the weeks leading to Christmas, as this little blond girl, wearing an apron tied high under my arms and standing on a stool, watched as Mom-mom, her own bib-apron ever-present on her ample frame, mixed batch after batch of holiday goodies. The entire house was redolent with the scents of butter and sugar and yeast, cinnamon and chocolate, adding to the absolute joy I experienced at being able to lick the remaining batter from bowl after bowl. And Mom-mom produced dozens and dozens of melt-in-your-mouth treats for family and friends to enjoy during the weeks leading to the celebration of the Holy Birth. It was truly a magical time for me, a time marked both with the warmth of the kitchen and the warming love of my grandmother.
Then there was Mom, who took the whole holiday baking endeavor to dizzying heights, elevating the baking of dozens of cookies to the baking of hundreds- no, thousands of cookies- often twenty or so varieties- which were lovingly shaped and rolled, cut and baked, and then stored in cans in the basement, to be doled out carefully to our immediate family since their primary purpose was to present them as gifts to business associates of Dad, friends, and extended family on the day of Christmas Eve. Mom would carefully fill platters with the holiday delicacies, cover them with colorful cellophane wrap (does this even exist any more?), and then Dad and one or more of us girls would load up the car and begin the deliveries. I can recall feeling like Santa’s helper as we went to house after house, always warmly welcomed by people eagerly awaiting the arrival of these delectable treats from year to year.
And of course, during all of those tantalizing weeks until Christmas Eve (the time our family traditionally celebrated together) when Mom would prepare a heaping tray of cookies for the family and we could officially share in the fruits of our labors (yes, we four girls helped with the baking as soon as we were old enough), there were numerous forays to the basement to surreptitiously open a can here and there to “sample” some of the cookies. After all, who could wait for weeks to taste those wonderful, melt-in-the-mouth delicacies which came from Mother’s kitchen? Interestingly, over the years, the cookies became smaller and smaller, more and more delicate, as Mom perfected her technique. Her holiday trays were a delight to behold, though I highly doubt that many of the recipients took too long admiring the sight but moved quickly to sampling the wares.
Early on in my adult life, I, too, joined in the family tradition of holiday baking in the extreme, usually baking at least a dozen varieties and often as many as fifteen or sixteen, making sure I baked the favorites of each member of my family, as well as trying at least one new recipe each year. Some of those quickly joined the “favorites” list, while others fell by the wayside in the “don’t bother” pile. And somewhere along the line, the tradition of baking accompanied by the strains of Christmas music playing on the stereo/CD player became as essential part of the routine for me. Especially wonderful were the years when my growing-up children helped, all of us forming an assembly line in the kitchen to make certain labor-intensive must-have varieties.
So far this year, I have made 5 kinds of cookies- about forty-six dozen- with another four or five to follow next week. This will be a “light” year for me, since we are all trying to cut back on our holiday eating. But I can’t disappoint any of the grandchildren, can’t stand the thought of hearing, “Grandma Linny, why didn’t you make …….. this year?” And so I continue baking, my own kitchen filled with the sounds and smells and feel of the delightfully loving task of baking Christmas cookies. I revel in the memories unearthed, in the gift of love I am both giving and receiving…memory, reminiscence, at its best. Merry Christmas, one and all!