I don’t remember how old I was when we started making sugar cookies for Christmas, but it quickly became a tradition. As I described it in my (yet unpublished) book:
Dad would make multiple batches of dough before retreating to the bedroom, finding the making and decorating too chaotic and messy. Jeremiah sometimes helped, but often it was me and Mom, each with our own task.
Mom started by rolling out the dough, a bit at a time, before choosing from a vast array of cookie cutters. Not all of them were strictly for Christmas – we had a Kermit one, and a bunny, and a six-pointed star, among others – but we didn’t let that stop us from using them. Some of the simple ones were easy, but some of the plastic ones had intricate details wrought into the mould: ornaments on Christmas trees, harnesses on reindeer, smiling eyes and mouth for Santa. With those, Mom carefully dipped them in our five-gallon bucket of flour before pressing them into the dough. Pulling them up, she oh-so-gently separated the dough from the plastic, sometimes using a knife to get the stubborn bits. Mostly she did well, but occasionally a tree top or reindeer nose or tail didn't make it, and the remains were added back to the dough - or sometimes popped into an eager mouth.
Once the shapes were safely on sheets or plates, it was my job to decorate, I think because Mom always felt that I was more artistic. And it's true that I could get quite elaborate, drawing the process out. That was part of my enjoyment. Using a pastry brush, I gently spread a light coat of water over the raw dough. Then I carefully dusted colored sugar over the shapes, using sprinkles for accents like eyes or ornaments. I mostly tried to be elegant and realistic, though in some cases I had fun being a bit sillier, such as making a blue moon. It was one of the few real bonding times Mom and I shared, particularly since by then I was a somewhat typical adolescent and didn't necessarily want to spent time with my parents. But cookie-making remained an inviolate tradition.
And of course, once the cookies were baked and out of the oven, still warm and puffy and soft with the crunch from the glaze of sugar, everyone wanted a taste. We ate damaged ones first, those that didn't survive being lifted from the cookie sheets, or ones that were too thin and crispy (Dad's favorite), making sure we kept enough to package up for friends.
When my niece was 2, we started to include her. It was important enough to me that I continued it with her and the rest of the family after my mom’s death, finding in it a connection to my mom and all those past Christmases. It’s not quite the same – I’m the one who makes the dough and cuts it out now – but we all share in the decorating, which is the most fun.
The hard part was when I was heavy and often had conflicted feelings about the cookies. As I wrote:
By 1988, with my weight an unpleasant presence, this tradition had a different feel, at least for me. It was frustrating to pour so much time and energy into food that I knew I shouldn't eat. The colorful cookies were almost taunting, and while I didn't resent them, I did resent the people who could eat them with impunity. Why should they get to enjoy the cookies when I couldn't? If they were bad for me to eat, surely they must also be bad for others. It left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, despite the sweetness of the cookies and the supposed joy of the holiday season.
It makes me all the more glad that I have moved past that. As I plan to go to my brother’s today to continue the tradition, I do so without any feelings of shame or guilt, or the idea that if I have a sugar cookie (or a bit of dough), I’m being “bad”. Instead, I can now participate with joy and the warmth of memory, and for me, that’s what it should be all about.