Every year in December, for as long as I can remember my family has gathered around the table for one of our most cherished traditions--making Christmas cookies. For over 30 years we've cut out sugar cookies together and decorated them with festive frosting, sprinkles and sparkles. My parents started this ritual when they were first married in 1980, and continued it with me and my sister so we could choose our favorite creations to leave out for Santa. Some years flour wars broke out, while other years called for our full attention to make the most impressively detailed treats, which usually lead to gingerbread men with globs of frosting dunked in sprinkles by the time we reached for the last ones. One year, under the mischievous guidance of my dad, we coated a tree shaped cookie with cayenne pepper and watched giggling and wide eyed as a family friend popped the whole thing into his mouth. Tears formed in his eyes and his face turned bright red as we ran away laughing, leaving a glass of milk on the table.
Since I moved away from the Adirondacks to New York City in 2008 we've always made sure to uphold the tradition and plan a cookie day when I return to the comfort of home for the holidays. To us, it's as important as the tree itself. Whenever I think about Christmas as a child decorating the cookies has always taken the spotlight as my favorite part, aside from the pure joy of Christmas morning, of course. For years we used the same recipe for the cookies and the icing. The cookie dough wasn't complete without a generous pinch of nutmeg, and the frosting was an unapologetic concoction of Crisco, powdered sugar, milk, vanilla extract and food coloring. That mixture will always be what childhood tastes like to me, especially when it's topped with rainbow sprinkles and, colored sugar crystals.
In early December 2008, six months after packing all of my things into my Honda Civic and driving myself to my new apartment in Brooklyn, there was a fire at the house I grew up in. It happened one week after we had all been together, full of Thanksgiving dinner putting up the tree, and only a few weeks before Christmas day. The house was the only home I'd ever had. It was built by the hands of my father and grandfather and was the setting of my idyllic childhood. A fire that started in the chimney destroyed everything. While the general consensus was that it was merely things that were lost (though we did lose a pet cat, and later an old dog who couldn't handle the stress), the feeling within the walls of our family was that our history had been erased. The loss of a home opens a unique type of grief that's much like losing a loved one, but far less understood.
After a 4am phone call from my mom, who said, "We can't tell how bad it is right now, but we'll let you know in the morning," I got into my Civic and drove overnight to see for myself. I'll never forget the gaping hole punched through the landscape when I finally made the left hand turn down our road six hours later. What I had slept in only a week earlier, was now smoke rising into sky. Logs were still smoldering and the facade stubbornly stood around the front door where a Christmas wreath still hung, but there was no home left. I walked circles around the outside of the house, slipping on the ice and snow, trying to put the burnt and broken pieces back together in my mind. I'd catch glimpses of items that hadn't been completely destroyed by fire, smoke, or water--a blue shirt that hadn't been worn in ages, the pattern along the edge of a dinner plate, a mustard bottle--mundane articles suddenly holding the weight of the most meaningful things we had.
I finally tore myself away from the scene and made my way to my aunt's house a few miles away. My family had retreated there after the fire was put out by the local, volunteer fire department. We all sat around the dining room table wavering between humor and despair, "I wish I hadn't spent the afternoon folding all of that laundry yesterday," joked my mom. She also noted that she had just finished all of her Christmas wrapping. One of the most difficult experiences post fire was having to make lists of everything we owned, as small as paper clips and as big as furniture, for the insurance claim. We all opened the kitchen cupboards and closet doors in our minds and wrote our lists until we couldn't bare it anymore.
grandpa's handmade clock
mom's jewelry box
first edition of the Wizard of Oz
great grandma's red pillow
We stayed at my aunt's for a few weeks until my parents found a house to rent. For the first time in our family's history we baked our Christmas cookie's in someone else's oven, used unfamiliar cookie cutters and decorations that weren't ours. Taking the time to keep our tradition alive during a family crisis felt hugely important, and promoted a sense of gratitude for the family support that we had. It kept us on solid ground and allowed us to lean on our family foundation and into each other while redefining our sense of home.
Ten years later my parents are living in a house that still feels new. They rebuilt on the same plot of land that we grew up on, which still holds much of our past. We were able to recover a few things from the fire, including some family photo albums that only suffered smoke and water damage. We received an unbelievable amount of support from family, friends, neighbors, and the community to rebuild. At times I thought I might never recover from what felt like the loss of my childhood. It's a wound that's still healing, but made my family stronger and allowed us to begin to build not only a new home, but new lives for ourselves.
I'll be heading home soon for Christmas and cookie decorating is already on the calendar. Much like us, the tradition survived the fire, and is now being passed down to my beautiful and thriving 5-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece who will get to choose which cookies to leave for Santa on Christmas Eve. They also get to build snowmen in the same place that my sister and I did, and go sledding on the hill that we used to roll down. They play with pure joy in my childhood backyard while experiencing the warmth and comfort of the only home they've ever known their Mimi and Papa to live in.
A lot has changed for us since the year of the fire, including our classic Christmas Cookie recipe, but we still keep a few small bowls of the Crisco frosting in the name of tradition.
My sister and I in the snow and with the Christmas tree up top, and my niece and nephew below
I'm a Registered Dietitian and Personal Chef in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up around the dinner table, and believe that food is intricately woven through all of our stories. It holds memories of home, childhood, and beliefs; it comforts us, nourishes us, and creates a centerpiece to gather around.