When I was a child, I remember baking hundreds upon hundreds of Christmas cookies. We’d start with meringues, or perhaps sand tarts, thin butter cookies cut out in holiday shapes, with a brushing of egg and cinnamon in the middle that was just large enough to hold a bit of a pecan. These recipes made a lot of cookies very quickly: enough to bring to the early-December holiday party or concert put on by a school or one of my musical groups.
As the month of December progressed, we added more: Russian tea cakes, those nutty, buttery concoctions rolled in powdered sugar. They crumbled when you ate them, and spilled sugar all over your clothes. They melted in your mouth like the butter they were made of. We made peanut butter balls, in which we took peanut butter, added some melted butter, and some sugar, and rolled it into balls. We refrigerated those and dipped them in melted chocolate. We stored them in the fridge in a medium-sized tupperware, sugary concoctions that were so much better than Reeses. Once I started liking pie, we added pecan pie cookies, for which we’d bake a doughy base half-way, before pressing in a centimeter-sized ball of pecan-pie goo. In the oven the base would spread a bit and the filling would spread out too, and we’d have bite-sized little pies of sugary, nutty goodness.
We made sugar cookies cut out into the shapes of Santa Clauses and Christmas trees, always those shapes and no others, such that we never called them “sour milk sugar cookies,” but simply, the Santa-Claues-and-Christmas-trees. We iced them: green icing with sprinkles for the trees; red — or, well, pink — icing on the Santas. My mom’s job was to add a careful dot of white icing for the pom on the top of Santa’s hat, a squiggle for his beard, three dots for his suit, a belt, and a line of “fur” at the bottom of his pants. Our job, as children, was not to put too many sprinkles on the trees, but to make them look tasteful so that the recipients of cookie plates would want to eat them. We were allowed to make a few crazy trees, ones loaded with silver balls, chocolate sprinkles, multi-colored nonpareils, to our hearts content, which we then ate with sugar-infused glee.
Once school ended, it was time to deliver cookies. We brought them to our classroom teachers, our music or karate teachers or sports coaches. We drove out on chilly afternoons to take to our family friends, each plate of cookies containing a few of each kind, doubly wrapped in saran, with a bow and a holiday label on top. Often we received cookies or sweets in return; my favorite was the fudge from our best friends; homemade fudge that hardened to chocolatey perfection when poured out on top of peppermint ice cream. As Christmas Day approached, at home we set out a cookie plate, always liberally laden with all the different types. Best yet, my mother set no limits on how many cookies we could eat. “It’s the holidays,” she said. If she felt concerned we were eating too many, she looked the other way.
When I went to college, holiday magic started at the airport; my mom always brought a few cookies with me when she picked me up, their familiar taste ringing in the holidays. I returned to school bringing a box of the remains of the Christmas cookies to share with my friends. They too tasted the sweet icing of Santas and Christmas trees, the crunch of a meringue, or the slightly stale sweetness of a sand tart.
Now that I have my own small children, we continue the holiday tradition. I find myself not quite so liberal with my own cookie intake as I was as a child, and I wonder how many types my mom baked when my brother and I were small — did the real cookie bonanza wait until my brother and I were both elementary-school kids and could help with all that baking?
These days, I know that I make cookies as much so I can give them to others as so that we can enjoy them at home. It’s a lot of work. We’ve added a new type, pfeffernuss, in honor of our time living in Finland; and we’ve added interfaith cookies to the plate as well. Now menorahs and dreidels join the Santas and Christmas trees, adding blue and white icing to the red and green. Cookies, it seems, are my Christmas mitzvah, a good deed I do in this holy season to bring a little bit more joy into the world.