Christmas cookies are a tradition. Whether it is chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, thumbprint or spritz, most families have a holiday tradition that was born out of a long family tradition or a special holiday memory.For me, it’s memory and tradition.
When I was growing up, the second weekend in December was when the Italian side of my family made the trek to Long Island in droves from Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey and around the neighborhood block to make traditional Italian lemon knot cookies and struffoli.
Great aunts, cousins, uncles and family members with names I deemed old-fashioned like Cosmo, Concetta, Nenell, Ida, Ed, Angela and others, streamed through the front door with the smell of the cold outdoors on their fur coats, along with scents of rosewater and hairspray. As a child, I just remembered a lot of nice old ladies with poofy grayish hair. I remember being ladened with their heavy coats and bringing them ever so carefully to my parents’ bedroom and arranging them on the bed since we didn’t have a big enough closet to hang them.
Perry Como Christmas music would be put on the eight-track and the house would be freshly vaccumed and tidied up and room made since we usually had to squeeze a large group in the house. I believe cousin Ed would be the lead driver and squeeze as many of the ladies in his car as he could as they made their way to suburbia. They would arrive around 10:30 a.m. and we would settle in for lots of hugs, kisses and chitchat.
Then out would come lunch. Lunch was always Italian bread, cold-cut platters, salads accompanied with discussions about how delicious it tasted and they couldn’t eat another bite, all while nibbling on some more antipasti. I was shooed away often as I tried to steal another piece of provolone cheese or roasted red peppers. We had to make sure all the adults got to eat first. After lunch the little kids would hang back while everyone piled back into their cars to go to the cemeteries to decorate family graves with wreaths. It always made an impression on me.
When they returned, the energy would really fill the room and it truly became “ladies work.” The men were shooed away and they would gladly sit in the family room. Soon they all seemed to settle into naps while my grandmother and her sisters would take over the kitchen. The younger ladies were relegated to assistant positions and the children got the kinds of jobs that kept us from getting underfoot.
Traditionally the sisters would argue about the ingredients and the exact recipes since no one would write them down.
Everyone had a job and scurried about. My job was to put the baked cookies on the table to cool. My cheeks were pinched and the Christmas music played. The house was warm and sweet.
As the afternoon went on the cookies were ready to be glazed and set to dry. These cookies were an all-day affair. The struffoli were baked, glazed and sprinkled with nonpareils. Struffoli were never my favorite and seemed more like an adult cookie. As for the lemon cookies, I could always sneak or eat one that I “accidentally” dropped.
Finally, the sun would set and the kitchen would be cleaned and then the entire family would squeeze around our too-small table to eat another big meal. Despite bumping elbows and plates being passed with a quick, hungry urgency, everyone managed to eat their fill of homemade spaghetti and meatballs and sausages that my mother had spent all day making the day before and eating bread that grandma brought in from Brooklyn. And while this was the most fun and relaxed part of the day, soon discussions about road conditions and getting on the road flowed.
In clocklike precision, my father brought down the coats and the uncles would help the aunts put on their coats and everyone pressed into the hallway while tins of cookies were divided up and mountains of struffoli wrapped in cellophane and ribbon were passed to everyone to get their equal share. I usually sat on the bottom stairs watching the frenetic action take place and quietly hope for my great aunt Connie and other family members would spend the night. I was that kid that would cry and beg for them to stay but I would be gently reminded that they all had homes to go back to and holidays to prepare for and cookies to eat.
I miss those days so much, and the passage of time makes me miss them even more. Most of the major players of those days have passed on and I plan on visiting them at the cemetery this holiday season but I am so proud to report that my great aunt Connie will be celebrating her 110th birthday Jan. 1. She is the oldest person living in Staten Island. Her memory is sharp and the last time we communicated she remembered the cookie baking days well.
Lisa Sweet writes about food for the Leavenworth Times.