The small joys of life
Memories of Christmas past
It’s amazing how something as simple as baking cookies can bring memories flooding back. (Who else had that Betty Crocker cookbook on their shelves 🤚🏻?)
Let’s not forget to cherish those moments as they come. Tomorrow, they too will be memories we look back on with warm, sad fondness.
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When I was growing up, Christmas always meant cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.
It was a challenge in our small kitchen, where we had to navigate around each other across the aging checkered linoleum and juggle ingredients, mixing bowls, and cookie sheets between the stovetop, the tiny counter, and the dishwasher that doubled as a kitchen island. But somehow, we managed to fill the house with the sweet aroma of melting sugar and browning dough throughout the month of December.
We made dozens of peanut blossoms: chewy pillows of peanut butter goodness with a coating of sugar on the outside and Hershey’s Kisses on top. I slipped the shiny red, green, and silver wrappers off the Kisses and piled the chocolate morsels into a bowl as I waited for the cookies to emerge from the oven. Then, I helped my mom press one Kiss into each domed center until little cracks formed. We arranged trays of our completed masterpieces on chairs near the sliding glass door in the dining room, opening it just a crack to let the chilly winter air firm up the chocolate.
Sometimes my brother and I couldn’t wait to have a taste. Before the cookies were baked, we rolled little balls of dough and popped them into our mouths, gauging whether there was enough peanut butter or if we should stir in just one more spoonful to make it perfect.
When the cookies were ready, I saved the Hershey’s Kiss for last, preferring to eat my way around it in a circle. The firm, browned bit under the chocolate was the last to go before I popped the Kiss into my mouth and let it melt into a sweet dark river on my tongue.
Russian tea cakes were another staple: a recipe from my grandmother on my dad’s side, handwritten in cursive on a card tucked into a wooden recipe box with two little birds on top. Composed mainly of butter, flour, walnuts, and sugar, they resembled tiny snowballs thanks to a dusting of confectioner’s sugar on the outside, which we applied while the cookies were still warm. The heat melted the white powder to create a thick, sweet coating that stuck to my fingers as I bit through the crunchy surface into the crumbly, buttery interior beneath.
But sugar cookies were the most epic ones, an endeavor that involved unearthing the orange three-ring Betty Crocker cookbook from the 70s, which we referred to almost exclusively for cookie baking. Then we mixed up the dough, beating butter, shortening, and sugar together in a Pyrex bowl with a wooden spoon before stirring in eggs, flour, baking powder, and vanilla extract (always pure, never imitation). The resulting sugary butterball went right into the fridge to firm up for an hour prior to decorating.
Then the real fun began. We unpacked our collection of cookie cutters in classic Christmas shapes from its Ziploc bag in the drawer by the sink: a star, a snowman, a fir tree, a bell, a candle, a reindeer, a Santa, a gingerbread man, an angel. Out came the special collection of sprinkles we only used at Christmas: multi-colored nonpareils, crunchy sugar stars, chocolate jimmies, and a pair of shakers filled with red and green sanding sugar—the Christmas equivalent of salt and pepper. And what batch of cookies would be complete without chocolate chips for eyes and buttons on snowmen and gingerbread men?
We reached into the fridge to pinch the dough; it needed to hold together enough to roll out without crumbling. A coating of flour kept it from sticking to the cutting board as I, wooden rolling pin in hand, flattened balls of dough to just the right thickness to make cookies that baked up crunchy around the edges and soft in the middle.
I liked to cut out the cookies in cycles, making one of each shape before starting over. The cookie cutters fit next to each other like a jigsaw puzzle with some excess dough in between that we pulled away to roll out again after the current batch made its way from cutting board to cookie sheet.
Filled sheets returned to the cutting board, each cookie a blank sugar canvas for my childhood creativity. My mom and I usually handled the decorating, shaking on coatings of red and green, pressing yellow and orange stars into the tops of trees and clappers of bells, and arranging drops of chocolate in pairs or rows—or sometimes just one by itself on the end of a reindeer’s nose. The nonpareils liked to roll away, so we tapped them down with our fingers to keep them in place while the cookies puffed during baking.
We spent entire afternoons like this, an assembly line of rolling, cutting, decorating, and baking. The cookies emerged from the oven a little bigger and a little rounder than when they went in and cooled to crispy, buttery perfection that snapped between our teeth and crumbled pleasantly in our mouths.
Those cookies were always waiting for us as an after-dinner treat or a snack to accompany hot chocolate after a long afternoon of playing in the snow. I’d come in with my brother and sit at the table or in front of the fireplace, dunking the sugary delights into my mug and hurrying to get them to my mouth before they broke apart and became sweet sediment in a chocolate sea.
Those cookies were part of a larger Christmas affair that began shortly after Thanksgiving every year when we tromped through the snowy woods near the house to find the perfect tree. My dad was in charge of felling it and positioning it in the stand so that it wouldn’t fall over. It filled the corner of the living room, a giant fir monument decked with multi-colored blinking lights, twinkling strands of icicle, and dozens of ornaments ranging from family keepsakes to crafts my brother and I made at school.
We decorated to the tune of Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song as it spun away on our record player, skipping lightly when the needle hit the scratch in the middle of “Silent Night.” That was just one of a stack of albums that formed the soundtrack of the season, a collection that included Elvis, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a country compilation that I loved. We played those records endlessly through my dad’s big, old-fashioned stereo, the one with the temperamental speakers that often refused to play in stereo unless we positioned the knobs just so.
A perpetual fire crackled in the fireplace, beating back the chill and giving the living room a glow that made us sleepy if we sat in front of it for too long. It was easy to linger there, sitting with my parents or my brother or all four of us together, watching the lights blink on the tree and waiting with anticipation for Christmas morning when presents would spill out from under the boughs as if by magic, and the living room would be transformed into a wonderland of wrapping paper, LEGO sets, books, dolls, and other delights of childhood.
I’m not sure how all this makes me feel.
Nostalgic, to be sure. Wishing I could go back and reclaim some of that time. Wishing I could bring to life a snapshot of my family as we were then.
But it wouldn’t be the same if I could. Life is different now. The setting is different. The world is a different place. I can’t go back to the early 90s when my mom was the age I am now and my brother was just starting middle school and my dad hadn’t yet grown his epic beard. I can’t return to an era when toys were mostly analog and kids were easily delighted by a doll whose ponytail “grew” out of the top of her head when you raised her arm.
But I do wonder: is it possible to reclaim the small joys of rolling out cookie dough and sprinkling on colored sugar, of relishing the peanut butter and saving the Hershey’s Kiss for last, of sitting in front of a sparkling tree while Mr. Cole croons another round of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”? Is there any hope of returning to that time and reliving the precious moments that feel as though they’ve slipped through my fingers?
Or does God give us nostalgia to remind us to take pleasure in the small joys of life as they come, to cherish the warm little moments that He tucks into the seemingly mundane routines of life and tradition—so that our whole lives become full of memories that crunch and crumble and melt sweetly on our tongues?
Thanks to Foster members Anthony Pica, Chris Angelis, Russell Smith, JG, Jude Klinger, Sara Campbell, and Steven Ovadia for their input on this piece. 🎄
Very special indeed. And as usual, your recollections stir up my own memories in a most pleasant way. Thank you!
This is so beautifully written, the work of a real writer who know how to make melodies with words and sentences, filling them with every kind of savored detail from memory by adding layer upon layer of concrete sensory delights to the finished essay. This is a story of the best and happiest of times at Christmas, told through vividly remembered details of baking Christmas cookies that melted in your mouth. They were treasured times with your mother to remember always.
How nice that you re-live those Christmases past with tender recollections, and the sure knowledge that the simple pleasures in life mean the most.