When I was a kid, Christmas was a splendor. Just as one example of the magnitude of the holidays that my Mom and Dad created for us kids, I was talking to my Mom about Christmas preparations for this year. We were both comparing “to-do” lists and commiserating about time constraints. Mom doesn’t have kids at home anymore, but she still has some 20 grandchildren, and there are a lot of people coming and going at her house all through the holidays, so she still prepares in a big way for the yuletide season.
In the course of our conversation, Mom relayed her baking plans, which included the following cookies and assorted seasonal fare: Russian Tea Cakes (my favorite), Candy Cane cookies (my second favorite), Fudge melt-aways, thumb print cookies, cut-outs, toffee squares (my third favorite), keeflies, smore kransors, shortbread hearts, sour cream angels, snowflakes, peanut butter balls, coconut balls, turtles, fudge, chocolate covered pretzels, caramel pretzel sticks, peppermint bark, peanut brittle, caramel corn, Boston brown bread, coffee cake, and scramble. And that was just the stuff destined for the silver tray come Christmas. She also bakes snicke doodles along the way, rolled in red and green sugar for holiday color, that serve as a buffer zone between marauding children and the treasured Christmas stores. When we were kids we were allowed to snatch the snicke doodles in the run-up to Christmas, but the official Christmas cookies were off-limits (mostly—we figured that what Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her). Those same rules apply now to her grandchildren.
And that whole cornucopia of Christmas cookies is just the normal crop Mom’s been baking every year for decades. I always took the largess of Mom’s Christmas larder for granted. All those bins lined up on the shelves of the three-season porch (which was used all four seasons in our house, becoming a walk-in cooler when the snows started flying) were just there and day by day filled up with more and more confectionery joy as Christmas got closer. But now that I’m on the baking end of things, the dawning realization of what was required to produce that baked-goods bonanza made me pause. And when I began applying the analytic power of mathematics to what my Mom was describing, my eyes grew wide.
“How many do you make of each kind of cookie?” I asked.
“Six dozen of everything, except Russian Tea Cakes, candy cane cookies, and cut-outs; for those I do a double batch,” Mom answered.
“Twelve dozen of those?” I asked.
“Yep,” Mom confirmed.
I did some quick calculations.
“Mom, that’s over a thousand cookies—even before you get to the candy,” I told her.
“Really? Wow, that’s a lot of cookies,” was Mom’s understated reply.
I have to say—it was a crushing moment. I had imagined myself to be creating a domestic Christmastide masterpiece that was an imitation of Mom and Dad’s own Currier and Ives holidays, which my children would “remember for all their lives,” just as I still so vividly remember the wonderful Christmases of my youth. But in that one moment I saw in a flash of dazzling clarity just how far off the mark I was from Mom and Dad’s Christmas. It was Mom and Dad who were creating the Currier and Ives—I was just scribbling with crayons. I was so far from creating the Christmas masterpiece that I had imagined that it would take the light from that Christmas a million years to reach me through the dark void of my yuletide’s inadequacy.
And worst of all, when I thought of the one thousand cookies baked by my Mom, I knew in the depths of my store-bought-cookie-dough soul that I would never—never—bake a thousand cookies—not in my whole lifetime, let alone in a single Christmas—let alone every single Christmas!
All my Christmas aspirations came crashing down around me. I despaired of ever giving my children a Christmas worthy of the legacy that had been handed on to me.
“My poor kids,” I told my Mom. “They’re never going to have a Christmas like that.”
And then my Mother, bless her soul, did something so typical of her: she reached out to another with love and encouragement.
She could have basked in the glory of her seasonal supremacy, gloated in the glory of her Christmas accomplishments, and piled on guilt laden tales of the suffering and woe she had endured working her weary fingers to the bone to create the storied Christmases which she had bequeathed to us children. But she didn’t.
Instead, what she said was: “You’re comparing your Christmases now, when you’re just starting out, to the Christmases we’ve spent forty years working on. That’s not fair to yourself. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. Just keep doing your best, working on it a little more every year.”
And then she gave me some practical tips, the best of which was to take some time at the beginning of the holiday season to plan Christmas—what food, activities, cookies, and so on, that I wanted for the holidays. Then work backwards on the calendar to allot time to prepare for each of those things so that I gave myself a chance to actually make them happen. She also suggested that I take time again when the Christmas season was over to look back over the holidays and assess what had gone well and what I’d like to change in the future. Then she passed on the tip to write down all those notes, and store them in my Christmas boxes where I would see them when I started preparations again next year. That would help me to build the holiday little by little every year.
She also suggested that I add to my family’s Christmas kit bit by bit each year, storing an ever growing supply of ornaments, dishes, and decorations in one central place that would be easy to keep track of. “Don’t worry if you don’t have much now,” she told me. “Remember the set of Christmas Around the World books?” Do I ever—it’s a set of books, one book per country, full of that country’s Christmas stories, history, songs, recipes, crafts, etc.—and I spent many a happy hour lost in their pages as a kid. And they are still one of my favorite things at Mom’s house during Christmas even today: a cup of coffee, a fire, and plate of cookies and a book all about Christmas in Poland . . . ah, holiday bliss!
“I got those books one a year,” Mom told me. “There was a time when I had none, then for one year I had one, the next year I had two, and so on. It kept growing little by little, year by year.”
“It doesn’t come all at once,” she said. “Just keep working at it, planning, evaluating, changing, and as time goes on you’ll get closer to your own vision of what you want.”
It was a tremendous relief.
Maybe I wasn’t a Christmas failure after all.
Only a novice.
In Scripture, Jesus told His disciples: ““You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you.” Matt 20, 25-26. Rather, as Saint Paul tells us, we should “encourage one another and build one another up . . .” 1 Thes 5, 11.
And that thought for others, putting others first and trying to build them up, was what Mom had done for me with her kind words and her Christmas advice. And that, I think, is the real secret of her Christmas masterpieces. It isn’t the cookies that make my Mom’s Christmases so amazing (though the cookies are amazing!), it’s the love behind the cookies, the love that prompts all that baking and other preparations that Mom and Dad put into Christmas, which make their Christmases shine with a joy that seeped into my bones so deeply that 40 years later I’m still warmed by the afterglow.
The cookies were only an expression of that love, and that’s where my hope lies. If it really depended on the cookies themselves, I’d be sunk. ‘Cause let’s be honest: I ain’t gonna bake 1,000 cookies. I don’t have the skills. The dozen or two I manage every year is already a major project for me. And truth be told, sometimes my kids being willing to eat them is more an act of love than my baking was.
No, I’ll have to find my own way of making the love and joy of the season tangible in concrete expression. I don’t know what that will be just yet. And I’ll still bake a few dozen cookies every year just for the tradition of it. But now that I know the real goal—lighting the fire of love that is the heart of Christmas—I can start getting on with making the Christmases that will be our families own unique addition to the great pageantry of Christmas down through the ages, so that I can pass on the gift of the Christmas holy days that my Mom and Dad handed to me in trust for a future generation.
Copyright 2015 Jake Frost.
Image: “Skeppsbron” by ArildV (2010) via Wikimedia Commons; CC-BY-SA 3.0