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Mom's best lessons sprinkle these holiday cookies
by Carrie Seidman
Scripps Howard News Service


December 20, 2004

It's that time of year when I buy flour in a 25-pound sack, replenish my supply of red food coloring (why don't the other colors ever run out?) and get out five yellowed and crusted recipe cards written in my mother's perfect slanting script.

Like an addict inexorably drawn to what is craved yet abhorred, I add to a schedule already packed with work, classes, wrapping and shopping the labor of crafting assorted Christmas cookies for gifts, as my mother did throughout my childhood.

The recipes are always hers and always the same. Cutouts, nut balls, spritz, toffee cookies and meringue wreaths. The cutters and cookie press _ which I inherited after a severe stroke left her with only one able arm _ are hers, too. So is the intention; to her mind, something homemade was always better than anything store-bought.

My back aching as I bend over the kitchen counter, meticulously painting a snowman's tiny carrot nose with a fine-bristled paintbrush as she did, I wonder why I am compelled to repeat this ritual every year _ right down to the three strategically placed cinnamon imperials representing holly berries on every single meringue wreath. Why does skipping even one step feel like cheating?

Part of it is sheer nostalgia ...

Five little girls powdering the kitchen with flour, turning soft, butter-colored dough into tough, grimy, gray balls. The smell of burning sugar from an excess of colored sprinkles. Fragile cookies shattering when pudgy hands handle them clumsily. Tears averted when Mom calls out: "It's all the same to your stomach!"

Then it's Christmas Eve, and we're going to that annual party at the Sawyers' house that we girls hate because Mr. Sawyer gets sloshed and squeezes us a little too tight for a little too long. Afterward, we drive around town, taking turns running up treacherously icy sidewalks to ring doorbells and deliver the cookies to Mom's friends.

Later, in front of the fireplace in our PJs, Mom reads "The Night Before Christmas" and helps us write a note to Santa to go along with the mangled cookies we've reserved for him.

In the morning, we'll find a note from him in a script that looks highly suspicious. He always complains we're making him fat - but the year we leave skim milk instead of eggnog, we think the presents aren't so hot.

But back to reality. Here it is 2 a.m., and I am still hunched over the dining-room table, painting perfect stripes on candy canes, waiting for the meringues to harden in a slow oven and feeling my Christmas spirit dwindle. Why do I do this?

Maybe it's the comforting familiarity of routine. You decorate the tree. You hang the wreath. You bake the cookies.

Maybe it's because I've done it for so many years now that my friends, as Mom's did, have come to see the plates as an essential part of their own holiday season.

For a half-terrifying moment, I think it's because the one thing I swore would never happen has, in fact, occurred.

I have become my mother.

Obviously, Earth would not stop rotating if I decided to stop baking. The decorations would come and go, Pillsbury would still be in business, and I wouldn't be out of red food coloring when it came time to dye the Easter eggs.

But there's something about the continuity: a hand-printed recipe card greasy with the fingerprints of several generations of bakers; a cherished cookie cutter worn from pressing the same shape into the dough for the 100th time; a lone baker laboring into the wee hours to give a handcrafted gift.

Then, all at once, I get it. Wrapped up in this aggravating but cherished ritual is every lesson Mom ever taught us.

Take pride in your work. Finish what you start. Be faithful to friends and traditions. Give to others in a meaningful way. Clean up your mess.

And when the cookie crumbles, laugh it off. It's all the same to your stomach.



Contact Carrie Seidman of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at

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