Our Christmas Tradition

Some projects take a generation.

I’ve made a Christmas tradition out of baking sugar cookies, managing the work like a project. From mixing, rolling, and cutting, to baking, cooling, and decorating, and finally, to picking, eating, and sharing; every movement is a sacred ritual repeated annually as we celebrate the birth of Christ. Every year I bake cookies with my three children in an ever-evolving process, as I slowly transition the project over to them until they are full partners in the kitchen. But, of course, ever with an eye toward them continuing the tradition and leading their own projects in their respective homes. Its taking longer than I thought.

I started even before they were old enough to do much more than watch and eat. I remember years ago putting together the batter when they were small children, too short to see the top of the table. They’d stand on chairs while I worked, watching with anticipation as I orderly I set out the sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and other ingredients. Their eyes filled with wonder as I set out the spoons, cups, and bowls, and other utensils. Their wonder turned to hunger as I slowly began mixing everything together.

My oldest, at about three years old, was eager to help me along in the process. He was closely watching my every move. In all eagerness, he asked “can I help?” It was that plaintive little voice small children have when they have no idea how big the job is or what they’re really getting themselves into. It was the kind of voice to break a parent’s heart, and the kind of question one waits for.

“No,” I said. I let the word hang between us while I measured a teaspoon of baking soda, watching him out of the corner of my eye. After tipping the crystals into the flower, I continued; “it is a difficult job.” He went silent and continued to watch. I explained, while reaching for the cream of tartar; “putting together a recipe takes the most careful of measurements, the steadiest of hands, and is a big responsibility.” He watched as I tipped the spoonful of powder into the bowl. I could see his eagerness to help. “Everything must be measured with precision and thoroughly combined if the cookies are to come out right.” The boy took it all in.

Wonder was in his eyes, but a shadow of disappointment touched his face. “Maybe when you’re older, you can help,” I consoled. He continued to watch, determined to learn and remember the process. “For now, you can lick the spoon and scrape the bowl.” He was happy again, but I like to think that at that moment a determination to be good enough, old enough, precise enough to help was incepted.

The next year, the second oldest asked the same thing. This time it was while I was making the frosting. They were both watching, standing on chairs either side of me. “Can I help?” he asked, again in that high voice of very young children. His older brother answered for me. “No,” he said across the space between us. With all the authority a four-year-old could muster when speaking to his younger brother, he explained “making frosting isn’t for children.” The job became larger in both their eyes. I was cheered.

As they grew, and a third child entered the picture, they began to eat more and more cookies. It surprised me how many they could actually consume; they gobbled them up so fast. They could hardly wait between baking and frosting; almost half the cookies were gone before we even got to decorating. And forget about saving some for the next day. We’d have cookies the day we baked them and that was it. The following day they were pretty much all gone, outside of the one or two I set aside for myself. But I quickly decided hiding cookies from my kids was no way to live. I needed to solve the problem.

But I was appalled at myself as I tried to impose control. “Don’t eat them all in one sitting,” I’d caution, but I couldn’t help but notice how it made me sound like a grinch. It didn’t do any good anyway. Either I needed to become more strident and more effective or a different solution was in order. Instead of trying to control demand – and with strong willed children, it was a fool’s errand anyway – I’d mitigate the cookie shortage through production.

So, instead of curbing consumption, I decided to simply to make more cookies. Lots more cookies. The following year, I doubled the recipe. As quickly as they came out of the oven, with only the briefest of moments to cool, the kids would start in on them. I wasn’t worried. More cookies were on the way, but it was close. My margin was still only another day’s worth of cookies. The year after that, I invested in three industrial-sized cookie sheets and quadrupled the recipe.

From then on, we baked hundreds of cookies every Christmas season, easily out producing their appetites. We established a rotation: as one sheet was baking, we were filling up another and letting a third cool. No matter how many they ate while we baked, there were more in the oven. We cooked batch after batch and the kid’s eating slowed. We’d effectively increased our margin by a few days, which covered us from Christmas to New Year’s. It was then that I began transitioning the project.

In the early years I ran a tight ship and a clean kitchen, but transitioning projects is a messy business. While I made cookies myself, I could keep the table and floor clean. I would wash the dishes as I went. I could put everything away before the last sheet of cookies were frosted and plated. But it was not to last.

The year I had the kids help mix the dough a little chaos crept into the process. I had to roll back my success criteria. As long as not all the flower was dumped on the floor, it was going to be okay. As long as not all the frosting was eaten before it made it onto the cookies, the project was to be considered successful. But by then, we were making so much dough, cutting so many cookies, making batch after batch of frosting, losses to spillage or early consumption didn’t matter. Shrinkage was nothing compared to the volumes which we were producing. The transition was going well.

The next phase was to have them assist with the cleanup. There was always lots of cleanup, especially as the kids took on more responsibility doing the measuring and mixing. As they got older, I had them sweep (there was always plenty of flower and sugar on the floor). As they got taller, I had them wash. And as they became faster, I had them dry. As they changed, I increased their duties.

Every year there was a change in the distribution of responsibility. In the early years, they merely helped. In the later years, they acted independently. Recently, they’ve been helping each other. Now I setup stations: one for rolling and cutting, two for frosting and decorating. Order has returned to the kitchen. It only took twenty years or so, but even now, the project is not finished. For that, I’ll need to wait for the year one of them invites me over to their home to bake Christmas cookies.

Although it may not look like your average tradition, it suffices for this family. We indeed do the same thing every year, but the parameters change over time, as we change.

Merry Christmas, 2020

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