Traditions Past and Present
Looking back at childhood Christmases, I don’t remember exactly what Santa brought from one year to the next. I received a number of dolls. Baby dolls with lacy dresses and glassy eyes that opened and closed. Cabbage Patch dolls with yarn pigtails and birth certificates. And Barbie dolls with flowing golden hair I’d eventually crop into a spiky pixie. I also remember getting a Speak & Spell and a ventriloquist dummy, but not in the same year.
What stands out more clearly in my mind are the traditions that were repeated year after year. The way our kitchen smelled – a mix of butter, sugar and cinnamon – right after Thanksgiving and for every day leading up to Christmas. The movies we watched, reciting every line verbatim, like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. And just after the Christmas Eve church service, the visit from the jolly man in red himself! Somehow my mother was never around for those visits, so she didn’t have proof the way the rest of us did. “Santa Claus was JUST here!” we would shout when she returned minutes after he’d left.
For me, the warm holiday fuzzies are spurred by a mix of music, food, twinkly lights, sparkles and more joyful, rich food. Andy and I have made an annual tradition of attending the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. We now know the music so well it makes the hair stand up on the backs of our necks as we anticipate favorite sections. The opening overture in particular always leaves me misty-eyed and chicken-skinned. We play the boxed CD on repeat and now our boys know this sacred music, too. Maybe next year we’ll take them to the live performance.
This year more than any other, I’m getting a sense for the holiday traditions (we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas) my sons cherish and will be likely to remember and carry on. They are beginning to develop distinct seasonal musical preferences. My kindergartener rifled through boxes of decorations and ornaments in search of his wooden nutcracker. We played The Nutcracker Suite while I struggled with strands of half-blown tree lights. The idea that maybe we’d take a year off from seeing The Nutcracker ballet quickly vanished when my boy, clutching his wooden nutcracker in one arm, told me exactly what he wanted to wear to the performance this year. His wide, bright eyes had so much anticipation I couldn’t do anything but nod, smile and get online in search of seats.
And then there is the food. I think fondly of all the Christmas baking my mother did, but I’m not much of a baker myself. We’ve made a gingerbread house a few times in recent years and I always make batches of peppermint bark, which carries the torch as our only non-negotiable, cannot-miss holiday kitchen tradition. It has become our universal gift for teachers, friends, hostesses and anyone who stops by for a glass of nog.
I have also tried a few recipes from fellow bloggers in the last few years and several stand out. This week, I made Jennifer Perillo’s crispy, chewy gingersnap cookies on what proved to be a most ridiculous “snow day” (a few fat flurries, some slushy sidewalks and then sunshine and 40 degrees?! Really, DC? Soft!). The cookies were gone in a hot second but for the three we wrapped and froze for Santa. I have also enjoyed Linda Balslev’s ginger spiced molasses cookies, pictured second from the top. That coarse, crispy sugar on the outside takes these cookies right over the top. I have a weak spot for molasses and spice, as you may have gleaned. And for those of you more inclined towards chocolate with your butter, I also made these tiny and adorable Nutella-filled sandwich cookies pictured above by Jennifer Segal. A show stopper! Of course, you may want to consider revisiting Grandma Wanda’s Kolaczki, pictured below, a guest post from my friend Andrea from a couple years back.
But I still leave the Christmas cookies I grew up enjoying to my mother. She churned out an impressive list of treats: hot cinnamon candy, cream caramels, butter toffee, tiny spice cookies shaped like mushrooms, candied orange peels and my childhood favorite: butter cookies. (I’ve never made them, but I have the recipe. It has just four ingredients! Your arteries will clog just reading it. I’ve violated my own rule to post only recipes I’ve made and tested, so it’s included at the bottom of this post.) Since we lived in the ‘burbs of Chicago, where the garage was like another refrigerator, my mom kept rimmed baking sheets and tins filled with goodies out there. When we went to parties, she would make a plate piled high with her homemade cookies and candies. She earned quite a reputation in this way. When I go home at Christmas, I still look forward to that toffee and if I’m really lucky, a mushroom cookie or a gingerbread man.
1 pound butter
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Beat butter in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add sugar and eat until creamy. Add flour a little at a time, then vanilla. Roll into balls and roll in sugar. Flatten with a cookie stamp. Bake about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. Store covered.
1. It’s hard to write quick tips for a recipe I’ve never made. However, I’m going to make some educated guesses here. I always say what kind of butter and that is usually unsalted. Since there is no salt in this recipe, I’d go with salted for these cookies.
2. The recipe also doesn’t say what kind of sugar. Go with plain old granulated white sugar here. You can either use the same kind for rolling or get a little fancy and roll them in turbinado sugar, which adds a subtle color and crunch.
What are your holiday kitchen traditions? Tell me in the comments below.…