Keckler Christmas Cookies
December 20, 2002

Every year a rigid ritual -- dictated by my mother -- had to be followed. Days before the event, my mother made up several batches of sugar cookie dough, wrapped them in wax paper hunks, and stuck them in the fridge. Salmonella wasn't such a news item back then, so in the days that followed, those hunks of dough would start to shrink. Not so much that you'd notice, of course, because it's really easy to pat and smudge dough back to smoothness after you've pinched a bit off.

When the great day came, my mother would order us into the sun room to start setting up the table. There were the cookie cutters to arrange, the dough to bring to room temperature, the oven to pre-heat, the cookie sheets to be lightly greased -- but we didn't really care about all that. What interested us were the decorations. The red hots. The silver and gold balls called "non-pareils" that my sister knocked all over the floor one year and blamed on me. The green sugar, the pink sugar, the yellow sugar, the coarse red sugar, the fine red sugar, and the light blue sugar. The things that ice cream parlours call jimmies but my mother thinks look like bacteria rods -- both in plain chocolate and multicolored. The tiny sugar balls -- also multi-colored -- that I loved to run my fingers through. These were the things we were most interested in. Against my mother's threats of grievous bodily harm, we peeled back the plastic covers and snuck tastes. It never crossed our minds that my mother seemed to have the same exact decorations for the past fifteen years. Although, if we had listened to what our tongues were telling us, we might have considered it. We just thought that fusty sugar-in-mothballs taste was normal.

Finally, the dough was plopped on the flour-dusted pastry canvas and smacked a few times with the rolling pin before being rolled out. My mother's rolling pin is also an item of interest. It's wooden and it has the propensity to catch cold, so it wears this cotton-ribbed sleeve. Mathra tells me his mother has the same sleeve on her rolling pin. Mr. Man gave us a marble one as an engagement present, and since its composition is specifically geared toward keeping it cold and preventing sticking, it doesn't need a ribbed turtleneck from J.Crew's winter catalog in ecru. The sleeve is smoothed with flour to prevent sticking, and once the dough was rolled to an appropriate thinness, we were allowed to have at it with the cutters.

Our cutters were made of tin, some had handles, some were just metal outlines. We had a rounded Christmas tree, a five-pointed star with tiny scallops on the edges, a bell, a diamond, a heart, a Santa profile, an angel profile, a big gingerbread man, and a little gingerbread boy with a matching dress-wearing gingerbread girlfriend. One year, my mother actually made the gingerbread for which those three cutters were intended, but we were such whiny "That isn't the way it was last year!" anti-gourmands, that she never made it again. Also, they kept letting their legs fall off after they were baked, and that annoyed my mother. We would dip our cutters in flour, give them a little shake, and press them into the dough. If you were skillful, you'd be able to pick the cutter back up with the dough still inside. Then all that was needed was a sharp tap on the back of the cutter to get the perfectly molded raw cookie to drop onto a sheet. But if you weren't skillful and the cutter didn't manage to pull the cookie away with it, the rest of the uncut dough had to be carefully pulled away from the cookie outline and a spatula used to transport it to the sheet. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Not according to my mother. In such a Christmas Cookie Emergency, she would order us to touch nothing, hustle us away from the table, and perform this pastry surgery herself.

In decorating, we took a totally different approach. What little care and caution we had burned up on re-entry and we went wild. With no regard to form, style, taste, or color clashing, we dumped the sugar everywhere. Jimmies shot off the table, silver balls clung to our sticky mouths, and the once-naked cookies groaned under the weight of their new wardrobes. We were obsessed with the idea of using the red hots as ornaments on a green sugar-saturated Christmas tree, and we flung them about liberally. What we often discounted was that the red hots usually popped during the baking process, and therefore the cookies came out looking, not so much like diminutive Christmas trees hung with shiny red balls, as trees that had run afoul of Tony Soprano. Truthfully? In those early years scores of our cookies should have been given cement baths before anyone tried to eat them. Of course, no one got the chance to eat them, because whenever one of those garbaged-up cookies came out of the oven, we were hanging over the cooling rack. Burned fingers, scalded mouths, and tongues that felt fuzzy for several days were nothing compared to ingesting large amounts of sugar as quickly as possible.

After the dough had been eviscerated with as many cut-outs as possible, my mother yanked it away from our wandering fingers, kneaded it back together, and rolled it out again. This process was repeated until there wasn't any dough left to cut out even one more cookie. That's when my mother split the remaining dough and gave us each an equal portion. To maximize our sugar intake for the day, and after arguing who got the most equal portion, we dipped our pieces of dough in decorations and ate them. Not like we hadn't eaten enough raw dough over the course of cutting and decorating. Any time my mother left the room, we took the opportunity to take whatever bell, star, or Christmas tree we was in our cutter and shove it into our mouths.

Kim Kafka, my college creative writing professor, had us set up a tape recorder in our households and write down everything we recorded in order to lead us through a dialogue exercise. Now, in my opinion, I have yet to meet anyone who can do justice to dialogue the way Bunting can. However, after being made hysterical by writing down what my roommates said one evening, I started paying closer attention to the things my family said to each other around the holidays and conducted the same experiment in 1993 and 1997. I found that the choicest bits came while making Christmas cookies.

Overheard while making cookies, December 1997

Mom: "Oh, Jennie! Are you wiping your snot on your clothes again?"

Mom: "It's disgusting. Give it to your father to eat."

Mom: "What happened to the cookie dough?!"

Mom: "The more you handle it, the worse it will get."

Mom: "Stop playing with it!"

Jennie (to me): "I threw the dough against the wall."

Jennie: "Didn't someone once put the dough in their mouth then spit it out and we made a cookie anyways?"

Mom: "We can't make too many escargot tomorrow because your father will eat them and they aren't good for him."

Dad: "Why is there so much screaming in here?"

Overheard while making cookies, Christmas Eve, 1993

Jennie: "Ow, ooh, ow!!!"

Mom: "What did you do?"

Jennie: "That's a really unfortunate place to put that."

Mom: "Well, stop thrusting yourself into the counter!"

Families and Christmas. No other chaos in the Universe like it.

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