Christmas Cookie Melancholy

Making a list and checking it twice. A grocery list, that is. With a grandson still too young to partake of the Christmas cookie ritual and extended family members who are gluten free, vegan, paleo, whatever…I am off to the market to buy ingredients, organic if possible, for a simple thumb print sugar cookie with jam in the middle. Remembering holidays past, I’ll be baking alone as I listen to Christmas music, a bit of melancholy mixed in with the sugar and butter. It all feels bittersweet, reminding me of the changes that time has brought to my family and to me, too.

As a child of the Baby Boom I remember using one of those aluminum tubes with the long arm to extrude butter cookie dough onto the cookie sheet. Those uniform floral-shaped cookies now seem so emblematic of the 1950s: no browned edges where a cookie was rolled out too thin, no sloppy melted sugar, no variation from the expected, creamy whiteness that characterized not just Santa’s beard but every media portrayal of the perfect middle class family.

Like so much about my rebellion against that generation’s desire for order, conformity, and predictability, Christmas cookie baking became an example of my effort to teach my own children to balance respect for tradition with a hefty dose of individual expression. Mothering my own cookie monsters in the 1980s and 1990s, I wrestled with a finicky sugar cookie dough that needed more attention and coddling than my offspring. No aluminum tube for me; each cookie should be unique, just like my daughters!

The waxed paper wrapped balls of buttery dough were nestled in the freezer alongside the special aluminum baking pans, spatulas and cookie cutters used for this purpose alone. As each ball achieved just the right degree of hardness it was rolled out on the wooden cutting board. Then the girls would take the metal forms shaped like fir trees, angels, bells and stars and arrange them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the dough. I wanted to let my kids be kids, making mistakes and manifesting their own creative vision.

“You need to sprinkle the green sugar on the tree not dump it,” Becky, the more fastidious one– in this regard at least– would scold.

“You’re too close, you made me.” Emily would retort as she elbowed her sister out of the way.

These cookies were always delicious, even if some had broken pieces, or burnt bottoms, or were as abstractly splattered with streaks of color as a Jackson Pollack mural. Five or six cookies would be left undecorated for me. Those colored sugar crystals gave me migraines, which wasn’t hard at that time of year. As a high school history teacher, I was exhausted from grading semester exams and writing the umpteen college letters that any teacher of eleventh graders writes for her students the following fall.

And then they were gone. The cookies, the daughters, the semester exams and the college letters.

Now in retirement I think back to those days in our Virginia farmhouse, flour dusting the heart pine kitchen floor as if a snow squall just passed through. I can smell the burnt sugar on the cookie trays. I remember the tingle of excitement as each batch came out of the oven. My anxiety would build as I worried about whether the dog had eaten any spilled chocolate sprinkles. My patience was as thin as the thinnest cookie in the midst of what felt like organized chaos. But I miss it.

I brought all of the necessary Christmas cookie utensils to my apartment in New York a year ago when I moved in. They are stowed somewhere in the back of the topmost cabinet. I get them out. The grocery list receives three additions: green and red sugar crystals and chocolate sprinkles. I may be baking alone, but beside me will be all of the memories of times past, turning my melancholy into merriness.

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