One early December a few years ago, my son asked if I would fill a cookie basket for his new landlord’s two little boys. I was making multiple dozens of cookies at the time, so I stuffed a green wooden Christmas basket for them and sent it off.
The following July when my son was visiting his landlord, the youngest boy approached carrying the basket as if to say “Please, Sir, may we have more?” Since then, the basket finds its way back to me in summer, and I overfill it for them every Christmas. It’s a new tradition of sorts, however short-lived it might be.
This year, while working through a binder of cookie recipes for my annual attempt at baking All Things Cookie, I’ve thought how my maternal grandmother’s 1950 diary might illuminate her Christmas preparations, cookies in particular. As is so often the case in research of any kind, what we find is not always what we wanted or even what we expected.
“Started work on Sis doll clothes.”
Winifred Lee Church (1884–1979) might have kept many diaries, but I have only two. Her 1950 diary in particular is not so much a diary as an account book, noting the weather, recording how many chickens laid how many eggs that day, and what household chores were finished. Descriptions of holiday preparations are sparse: “December 19th, cloudy. Started work on Sis doll clothes. Gave mother bath.” She also notes working on a blouse for her daughter Doris, Sis’s mother, finishing Christmas cards, and how shopping tired her out. No overriding commercialization and all strictly routine: “December 23rd, Fair. Went out to Doris in PM to take turkey and vegetables from freezer. Brot back ½ hog. Took from freezer for us 2 strawberry, 2 peas, 1 corn.”
The only real tradition noted came on Christmas Eve when my grandmother’s family “had tree,” i.e., opened their presents. Her family always opened their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, probably because mornings were too busy with farm chores. (Cows have to be milked when they have to be milked, period.) Succinct even in the face of celebration she continued: “Went up to Aunt Dora’s in AM to take her Xmas presents. Gave her one frozen strawberry.” I’ll never know if that was a tradition, a joke, or just snarky.
The only real tradition noted came on Christmas Eve…
Notable in all the entries for November and December 1950 is that there is Not. One. Cookie. Mentioned. No gingerbread men, no cut-out sugar cookies, and definitely no sugarplums. There is a regrettable lack of cookie recipes in the few recipes of hers that I have, including the one for the molasses cookies that my brother and I still crave.
I question whose granddaughter I am that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers made holiday food preparation so routine that tradition had no grasp. And then, out of my “squirrel bins” appeared two well-used, tin cookie cutters in the shapes of a star and a heart. Some grandmother apparently didn’t stop at drop cookies.
For years I have made several dozen cookies of all kinds to give away at Christmas. It is, thankfully, neither my tradition nor my routine, but three solid weeks of work I enjoy to quell that insistent inner demand for sugar and butter.
Isn’t that what a holiday food tradition should be, a fun variation of a work routine?
Have a Merry Christmas!