As a young girl in a military family, we moved almost every year until I was in the 4th grade. We then lived for a few years each, in both northern and southern California before Dad finally retired from the service. Military families often live far away from family and miss out on the annual traditions or routines that usually form from being near them. We didn’t have Christmas Eve’s at Uncle so in so’s or alternated Christmas Day dinners at each of our grandparent’s houses. Christmas was usually just dinner for the four of us, Mom, Dad, my brother and I.
Having missed out on holiday traditions with other family members as a kid, it was important to me that my daughter have family traditions when she was growing up. I was inspired by my ex-husband’s large family, who routinely celebrated different holidays throughout the year their own unique way with a large family picnic for Easter and a Christmas Eve gathering every year that I made sure she attended.
In preparation for Christmas, three families that resided in homes all on the same street gathered in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day to pick a family member’s name from a bowl. On Christmas Eve there was a party at one of the three homes along with traditional food and a gift exchange. My food memory from those parties so many years later were Grammy’s shrimp balls, at the time made by a beloved Aunt nestled in a chrome insulated container that I couldn’t wait to see arrive and placed on the table.
Another tradition that took place for several years involved a group of family members that got together in early November and drove across Lake Pontchartrain to a Christmas tree farm. Each family would select their tree, pay for it and tag it. The Friday after Thanksgiving, everyone would make the journey back to the farm to cut the tree down, wrap it up and bring it home. The following Saturday night I would host a tree trimming party for friends and family. When I think back to the small townhouse living room I had back then and the number of people that would cram inside, I’m not sure how we did it, but everyone eagerly attended year after year.
These were the days long before computers, so with a few library books and a typewriter, I typed all of the lyrics to 36 Christmas carols. I cut out and taped some images and drew others to some of the pages. I then organized the pages so that after I made photocopies and folded them in half, they would form a little song book. The children would sit in front of their decorated tree and sing a few Christmas carols.
While I didn’t ask my guests to bring an ornament, I received some beautiful versions that have become treasured classics -handled with special care as they are hung on my tree all of these years later. Year after year, as I unpack them from their layers of bubble wrap or tissue, the memories of those parties come rushing back.
Whenever a party includes children it’s imperative to have an activity to keep them entertained, especially in a small home. Upstairs I had an open loft that didn’t have any specific purpose, but offered enough space to place two folding tables with chairs. For the first party I baked cookies formed into various Christmas themed shapes such as candy canes, bells, and trees. I then purchased a variety of sprinkles and colored sugars and cans of white frosting that I used food color to make green, red and yellow. The kids sat at the tables with their plastic knives and dipped into the cans of frosting to slather on their cookies and then sprinkle with various candy decorations having a ball! I would convince them to allow the cookies to dry, and then ask them to come downstairs to decorate the tree and sing Christmas carols. We then wrapped their cookies in cellophane bags for their journey home.
In the years that followed, I found a large Teddy Bear cookie cutter. I thought that something with a larger surface, maybe rolled out a little thicker, would be easier for the kids to handle. I could not have imagined not only how much they would love it at the time (as they left with bears loaded down with chocolate or vanilla icing and about a pound of various candies), but years later one of the mothers told me her daughter still remembers decorating those cookies and she’s now in her late 30’s.
Now I have grandchildren, but they live one State over and with jobs and school schedules I don’t see them as much as I would like. While they often come home for Christmas, it’s usually after the tree has been decorated, so starting with my first grandchild, I have baked those same Teddy Bear cookies and mailed them with tubes of icing and various sprinkles so she could decorate her cookies when she decorated the tree with my daughter and her husband. Now with three grandchildren, every year I’ve sent the cookies and the kids have followed the tradition of a night of cookie decorating. Last year I asked my granddaughter who was at the time just days from her 11th birthday, if I should keep making the Teddy Bear cookies and she immediately said “Yes! Nana, it’s a tradition!”
For the past two years, their little family has stopped by on the Saturday after Thanksgiving on their way home from visiting their grandparents in Alabama to decorate my tree. This year while Mom and Dad enjoyed a college football game, we played Christmas music and shared an evening of decorating my Christmas tree and then gathered around the table to decorate two new cookie shapes – a large Christmas Tree and the popular red truck with a Christmas Tree (that the boys decided to make blue.) Of course by the time we had finished the Christmas tree cookie, my littlest demanded it was time to eat his snowflake cookie. (I mean a little boy can only hold out for so long!)
Packed in those same cellophane bags, ready for the journey home, somehow all of these years later, I’ve managed to re-create a similar tradition with my grandchildren. Whether in their own home or here with me, I hope that like those other small children who once attended my tree trimming parties years ago, they will remember these moments as our “Christmas cookie tradition.”
Nana’s Cookie Recipe
2 sticks (1/2 cup each) of unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste (or) pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp pure almond extract (yes 1 tablespoon)
The zest of one naval orange (the entire orange – no white pith)
Sift together and set aside:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
(for a chocolate dough add 1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder)
Mixing bowl and mixer – add room temp butter and 1 cup of sugar and mix until creamy and smooth; add egg, extracts and zest. Mix until combined.
Add dry ingredients ½ cup at a time on low speed to avoid powder flying everywhere, and then mix on medium until the dough forms into a ball.
Split dough into two square disks and wrap in clear plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Note: if refrigerated longer (or overnight) dough will have to be taken out and sit for a while before attempting to roll out. It will be too stiff. For optimum results work dough 1 hr after chilling.
Clear a shelf as much as possible to fit a full cookie sheet into the refrigerator. (I usually try to move around items all to the same height that I can set the tray on top level).
Pre-heat oven 375 degrees.
Place one disk of dough between two pieces of plastic wrap (this prevents the dough from sticking to the counter and the rolling pin, with no flour dusting or mess to clean up) and roll out in one direction, turn clockwise and roll again to about ¼ inch thickness. A good trick is to put chop sticks on each side of the dough and roll the rolling pin over the chop sticks for thickness to be even. (If too thin when decorating the cookies will break and the edges could over bake).
Remove the top layer of plastic and dip the cookie cutter into flour before pressing into the dough to cut each shape for a clean cut and transfer cut cookies to a parchment paper or silicon sheet liked cookie sheet. Once the sheet is filled, pop it into the refrigerator for about 7 minutes. (This helps the cookie keep its shape without spreading – if too warm the dough will spread).
While the cookie sheet is rechilling. Pull together the dough scraps into a disk and roll between plastic wrap again. Same process as above and place on a second lined cookie sheet.
Place the first re-chilled sheet in the oven with timer on 15 minutes – chill the 2nd sheet for 7. When the time for the 2nd tray is up, the first tray is half way through its baking process, turn it around and add the 2nd tray. When the timer goes off for the first tray – remove and reset timer for 7 more minutes for the 2nd tray. Cookies should be slightly golden.
Let tray cool for 5 minutes and then transfer to a cookie rack to completely cool. Repeat with the 2nd tray when timer alerts.
Repeat with all of the remaining dough.
Cookies must be completely cooled before decorating.
Cookies can be stacked into an air tight container up to a week – if you want to decorate at a later date. Once decorated, they are still good for a week and stay pretty fresh if sealed in a good container.
Note: Recipe used for: Annual Teddy Bear cookies for tree trimming parties; various holidays for grandchildren’s classes, cookie decorating with grandchildren and gifts to neighbors; 2019- Teddy Bear dropped for Red truck with Christmas Tree.
Other flavor options tested:
• For those with nut allergies – omit almond extract and increase vanilla to 1 ½ tsp.
• Lemon or Lime zest in lieu of orange
• Shown above -Add 1/3 cup of cocoa powder to dry ingredients for a chocolate cookie (any more dries out the dough).
• Powdered dehydrated raspberry or strawberry (1/3 cup) to dry ingredients for a pink cookie – great for Valentine’s Day heart cookies.