I Hate Christmas But I Love These Cookies
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I heard the flood before I saw it. A faint drip giving way to a trickle then a stream, and the second I realized the deluge was happening inside the house rather than safely outside the windowpane, I flung my body toward the bookshelves, fumbled for my grandmother's Christmas cookie recipes, and threw them to the dry side of the floor. They were only slightly the worse for wear—definitely weathering the situation better than I was.
Maybe I wasn't supposed to have these recipes in the first place, as cosmic justice for turning my back on the holiday. I'm sure if I scrounged around in my psyche I could find a few warm memories from childhood—my dad reading Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales to the family on Christmas Eve, a Snoopy ornament, a port wine cheese ball—but mostly I excavate the stress. I was an eternally anxious child who soaked up other people's tension like the roots of a thirsty Douglas fir and during December in the suburbs, tension flowed like a faucet that never turned off. There's a particular alkaline edge to the season if you're a person who is attuned to this sort of thing: the fissures that form from the pressure of the holly-jolly crushing up against the reality of the day. My mother was stressed, so I was stressed, (and I assume her own mother had stressed her out), and while I'm sure that actual good and light and love was happening around me, there's a thick layer of dust that settled on my brain's pleasure center, and there was just one thing that could blow it away: the arrival of my grandmother's cookies.
Not my mother's mother mind you, but my dad's mom Thelma who insisted on real butter and the nicer deli ham when she visited, rather than margarine and packaged bologna. She and my Aunt Myrna stirred, rolled, filled, baked, and shipped thousands of cookies each holiday season, each swaddled in layers of waxed paper and tucked by the dozens into department store shirt boxes. There may have been a conventional snickerdoodle or chocolate chip in there somewhere but I was in it for the Swedish gems, snappy turtles, cherry winks, black walnuts, jam-filled Hungarians (my favorite), and apricot thins that so far as I knew, manifested solely in December due to some arcane Christmas law, and vanished for the next 11 months. There were rules, if not spelled out, at least mutually respected, that each member of my immediate family had first dibs on a particular variety and might have the bulk of them—while making sure that each person still had one of each to enjoy. My sister Anne and I spent most of our childhoods with our thumbs pressed into the other one's eye, but to violate this was mutually-assured cookie deprivation, so we called an annual detente and retreated to our corners with our sweet treasures.
When Thelma's arthritis got the better of her hands, rather than cease production, she requested an electric sifter—which my dad happily obliged—and she kept rolling along for the next few years.When she died in 1997 at the age of 86, Myrna took on the cause. When we lost her six years later, my sister picked up the rolling pin, but it was just too much to take on. Anne and I warmed to one another in adulthood, joined hands rather than jabbing fingers, and I like to brag on my doctor-slash-lawyer sister who is too busy to bake enough cookies to feed the whole North Pole. But I missed the cookies and my chance at making them—or so I thought.
So far as I understood, Anne was making cookies but not from the same recipes (I never actually received a box—it's fine, just fine) and I assumed they had been lost to the ages. But then, a Christmas miracle. In 2012, I made an off-handed reference to Thelma's cookies in a story I wrote, and my cousin Nicole sent me a Facebook message: "I have all of their recipes. I would be happy to copy them and send them to you! The article made me cry a bit. I loved cooking with them and I always helped with the cookie making. I wish I could hug you right now!"
Not long after, two folders showed up, stuffed with photocopies of mimeographs of typed pages with every one of the goodies that had been dancing in my head like so many sugarplums for all these decades of deprivation. I tucked them into the bookshelf in the corner under the—now in retrospect—crumbling ceiling and proceeded not to make a single one of them. This year I'm traveling. This year I'm too down. This year I have gut troubles and I don't want this thing I love to sit like a lump of coal. Next year. Next year. Next year. If I really care to be honest with myself, though, I was afraid. What if I couldn't make them as well as my grandmother, make them taste like that warm hug my cousin wished me from afar? What if they just weren't that great to begin with, and my mind has just glazed them over with memories of this woman who was kind, warm, funny, collected Hummels, snored like a chainsaw, made me feel loved and who lived a good seven decades longer than the doctors said she would.
I snatched the pages back from the flood, losing a few more technically "valuable" signed and first-edition cookbooks to the deluge in the precious seconds that took, but it was a worthwhile trade. I told myself last Christmas that 2020 would be the year I try to bake these cookies, but I had no idea what lay just down the path. I hope Thelma, Myrna, my mother, and all my better angels will forgive me if I don't. I just need to hang on to the sweet memory for a little while longer.