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Tradition, Memory, and the Christmas Cookie Caper

by Barbara Anne Radtke


This is a story about how a tradition makes memories; how a memory can make a new tradition; and how memories of the same event can be different.


When I was a kid, I lived in a post-World War II neighborhood with a ton of kids. Yes, one time we counted and there were 90 kids who lived on the three dead-end streets that were our playground. Every year on Christmas Eve -- rain, snow, or cold --my parents invited everyone to gather under the one street lamp at the end of our street at 7 p.m. We went around the block to any household that would open its door and sang them a Christmas carol. My mother had typed the song sheets; my dad led the singing; and, after an hour or so, everyone came back to our house and had cookies, date nut bread, and hot chocolate. There was only one family with children on our block who did not celebrate Christmas. They came to the reception early and greeted hungry and cold carolers as they came in for hot chocolate. I can’t recall what year we began to carol, but this caroling thing extended into my college years and my parents continued to have drop-in guests on Christmas Eve even after we all – three brothers, one sister, and me – left home.


My mother did the baking of the chocolate chip cookies and the date nut bread by herself. The aroma of the bread or cookies laced through the house when we got home from school beginning in early December. One year, when my sister was in elementary school, she helped with baking the cookies. She would come home from school and whip up a batch before dinner. Every time she baked, she would put the cooled cookies in a huge cookie jar and store it in a pantry at the bottom of the stairs that led to dad’s workshop. She must have baked 12 dozen chocolate cookies or more. That year my brothers cultivated an afterschool habit of which my sister was unaware. They went down to the pantry and helped themselves to a few cookies every day after school. The way my brother Steve remembers it: my Mom suggested that he take a cookie or two ONE afternoon. He extended the permission to everyday after school and shared with our brother Mike. Mike and our youngest brother Bruce are no longer here to chime in with their memories. No one is sure if Bruce ever purloined a cookie, but he certainly took part of the new tradition this event spawned.


On December 23 of this certain year, our Mom told Teri to bring the cookies up from the pantry. The canister was curiously light. When she opened the top, there were only five cookies left. She cried. It only took a few minutes for my parents to figure out what happened.

What I recall next is that my Mom had Steve and Mike bake cookies all Christmas Eve so that there were enough for the carolers. Teri remembers baking Christmas Eve afternoon and has a vague recollection of the boys helping. Steve does not remember baking at all. Being neither a baker nor a cookie thief, I was an observer of this whole event. All I recall is that the caroling happened as usual and there was enough for everyone to have a treat.


As the years went by, everyone chuckled at the mention of the Christmas cookie caper. When we all left and began our own households, another practice emerged. It seemed every year at least a dozen chocolate chip cookies would appear in the mail – maybe from Mike, maybe from Bruce, maybe from Steve, maybe from Teri, maybe from them all. I have always assumed that it was in memory of the chocolate chip cookie caper. Steve says “no,” he just liked baking chocolate chip cookies. Bruce and Mike are not here to tell their motives – and in full disclosure, Mike eventually sent biscotti. But, isn’t that the way with traditions, I argue? They stay alive because they change to accommodate new time


This year I made the chocolate chip cookies. The keepers of this memory are dwindling. I worried the tradition, now shared at our Thanksgiving gathering, would stop. I should not have been afraid. Teri made some cookies, too. Steve took some home. Putting it politely, we have already been generous in sharing this tale with the next generations, but we all had a chance to tell the story again.


Response

by Kathy Hendricks

I love the story of the great cookie caper, Barbara. Not only is it a warm family memory but it speaks in a broad way to the initiation of traditions and the way they can change over time and with new generations. Christmas is a particularly rich time for traditions – ones that include rituals, symbols, and stories.


In my own family, Christmas dinner was a particularly festive occasion – one my parents hosted each year with an ever-growing contingent of in-laws, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends. My mother had a huge set of silver flatware, complete with utensils that now need a bit of explaining: such as shrimp forks, individual butter knives, and demi-tasse spoons. The set was passed along to me and, now that my daughter and her husband are serving as hosts for our much-smaller gatherings, I gifted them with the whole set. This year, my four-year-old granddaughter and I spent Christmas Eve morning polishing the silver and my son-in-law then set a gorgeous table, complete with each of the place settings. We made little use of the small utensils, but their presence brought back warm memories.

What traditions give rise to your memories and associations, dear readers? We hope you will share one or two with us and that the new year will give rise to a deepening of appreciation for the love and warmth of cherished times.



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