Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday. She delighted in a decorated tree and decorated it with care, rearranging the slapdash ornament placement that characterized my brother’s and my placement. Back in the days when we would lay strands of tinsel over the branches, she would stay up to the wee hours to get each strand perfectly hung. (For a long time, I believed that in order to be a parent you had to learn to say, “No, you can’t throw the tinsel. Hang it carefully one strand at a time.”)
Throughout the rest of the year she was, at best, a occasional baker, when Christmas came around, she pulled out the mixer and made double batches of 5 or 6 kinds of cookies: rum balls, Russian tea cakes, pfeffernusse, wreathes pressed out of a cookie press, and sometimes other cookies as struck her fancy. We were covered with flour and sugar and memories every year as we baked together.
After she died, I took on making some of her cookies every year. When my daughter Claire was young, I started adding other kinds of baked goods for Christmas along with my mother’s regular ones. One year I was deep into a baking frenzy, when I got a phone call from a loved one. He was struggling to find Christmas, and all sorts of things were going wrong. There was a rift in an important relationship, and the holidays were just not going to be the same. I listened with compassion and murmured comforting words as best I could, and with a broken heart, I hung up the phone and thought, “I’ll bake him some cookies to help him feel better.”
I looked around the kitchen. Nearly every surface had at least one container filled with cookies and other baked goods. I still headed to the refrigerator to get more butter out to soften, considering what kind I could make. Would it be the snowy white Russian tea cakes or another batch of wreaths? I checked my green sugar supply and looked for red hots.
Eventually it struck me: what about 12 dozen cookies wasn’t enough for me? Why would I need more? I could package up half of what was in my kitchen at that very moment and I’d still have too many cookies.
I didn’t wind up baking more, and wound up only sending love and light and checking in regularly with my beloved friend.
This time of the year — especially for those of us who celebrate Christmas in its cultural excess — it’s easy to get overwhelmed, to try to do too much, to believe that there’s some kind of perfection to be found in the right presents, the right meal, the right tree, or _______ (fill in your own word here).
And for some, it’s a time of emptiness and too much quiet.
The point, of course, is to find some balance. Pause in gratitude. See the stars, and breathe the air, and wonder at the miracle that surrounds us always. Reach out to someone. Give of your time to something that matters.
And have a cookie, too.