By Larry Sceurman, author of The Death of Big Butch
Publisher’s Note: Larry Sceurman’s debut novella is a rich, nostalgic view of familiar struggles that remain relevant regardless of the historical date. But Larry Sceurman, the storyteller and individual, expresses these eternal thoughts in colorful hand-made cards and humorous letters to friends and family. Now that Big Butch has released, we want to introduce you to its author, Larry Sceurman, through the Christmas letter he drafted, that isn’t a letter of brags and news, but a survey and history of Christmas cookies.
If you haven’t purchased or downloaded The Death of Big Butch, it is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com and the kindle version is free for two more days. So don’t delay.
The Christmas Cookie survey of 2022
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Barbara and I sat around the dining room table with friends. We were enjoying Barbara’s delicious tapioca pudding and discussing the holidays. The subject of Christmas cookies came into the conversation and it was very interesting how each one of us had special memories of Christmas cookies. It was not surprising. Who does not like Christmas cookies?
This started me to wonder about the origin of Christmas cookies.
All cultures have some sort of pastry, cookie, biscuit, cake, or doughnut that is served at this time of year. Cookies came from hard biscuits that weren’t all that tasty. But in the Middle Ages when the West had access to sugar and spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and cardamom, the bland biscuit turned into a sweet tasteful cookie. Cookies became popular not just for the sweet taste but you could store them. To this day, cookies are made weeks ahead of time, before the annual Christmas celebration takes place. The word cookie comes from the Dutch word “koeptje” and the Dutch introduced the first Christmas cookies to the New World.
I started to think about all the different types of Christmas cookies: kiffles, chocolate chip (Toll House), gingerbread, pignoli cookies, snickerdoodles, nut tassies, thumbprint cookies, shortbread, peanut butter, cut-out sugar cookies, which some locals still call apees, oatmeal, and many more varieties.
My favorite Christmas cookie is the cutout cookie or as my family referred to them as AP cookies. I think, the cutout cookie is the best cookie ambassador for Christmas, not just for its sweet butter taste, but for the many shapes of Christmas. My grandmother made sugary silhouettes of stars, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candy canes, bells, reindeer, and snowmen. Decorated with colored sugar that turns your milk into a light green or a pink, and hard little silver balls that represented decorative beads and eyeballs of reindeer and snowmen that cracked when you bit down on them. My grandmother’s cutouts were the best for years, but then I ate some cut-out cookies that my mother had on a plate.
I said, “Mom, who made these cookies? They’re delicious.”
She told me that her friend, Winnie Arbogast, was the baker. I hate to say this, but my grandmother took second place and Winnie’s cutout cookies were number one. That was until a couple of years ago. Barbara and I were at the Christmas recital of my son Josh’s guitar students. There were platefuls of cutout cookies that were scrumptious. They were the best cutout cookies I ever ate.
I asked my grandson, Ezra, “Where did your dad get these cookies?” With his mouth full of cookies, he told me that his dad made them. I still marvel at the fact that my son makes the best cut-out Christmas cookie I ever ate.
My second favorite are kiffles. My family didn’t make kiffles. I was introduced to them in my teenage years through my Hungarian, Slovak, and Polish friends. Their families made tons of them and I was often given a paper plateful to take home. My fondness for them grew with every bite and my favorite fillings are apricot and lekvar (prune).
But my lovely wife, Barbara, makes one hell of a good chocolate chip cookie. I guess, the reason chocolate chip is not my number one favorite Christmas cookie is because my mother made them throughout the year not only at Christmastime.
As I’m writing this, I looked down to the left corner of my laptop screen and I see his space that says (Type here to search) and at the end of the space there are pictures of cookies. My curiosity prompts me to click on the cookies and it turns out that today, Sunday, December 4th is National Cookie Day.
I did a little survey, asking friends and family what their favorite Christmas cookie is. (Note: Some of you may have been part of the survey.) Chocolate chip was by far the number one choice. Followed by three votes for cutout cookies, three votes for nut tassies, three votes for kiffles, and two votes for oatmeal cookies.
Cookies such as snickerdoodles and peanut butter got a vote but were mentioned many times as second or third favorite. Other cookies that made the list were shortbread, molasses, spritz, kolache, Italian horns, pignoli, gingersnaps, vinegar cookies, black bottom cupcakes, and thumbprints.
Another statistic that I found interesting from the survey was, when asked what your favorite Christmas cookie is, 50% of the participants knew without any hesitation their favorite Christmas cookie.
The other 50% said, “Oh, that’s a hard question.” And struggled a bit to pick one cookie.
But everyone had a story, explanation, or a memory to share about their favorite Christmas cookie. I think there are two types of cookies. The first type of cookies are presented as assortment cookies, they are displayed on a plate or tray with other cookies that are attractive and look pretty. Cookies that you sample. Then there are cookies such as chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal that with a cup of coffee or milk can be made into a meal.
Christmas cookies are part of our childhood memories of Christmas. Chocolate chip cookies were the special snack we always set out for Santa. A tin of Christmas cookies from a family member or friend was always welcome, not like a gift of socks or a handkerchief.
The smell of cookies baking, the sweet taste, special texture, the beauty of each color and shape, and the snap or crunch of a cookie will forever echo in our Christmas recollection.
For it is the Christmas cookie that has the special warmth that nourishes our souls. Christmas cookies bring us home even if we are far away. Christmas is about coming home.
The first Christmas, Joseph and Mary had to come home to Bethlehem where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The Three Wise Men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If there would have been a fourth wise man, I’m sure he would have given the gift of cookies.
Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.
God bless and have fun eating cookies.