They say you can never go home again — that someday, everything you’ve ever loved and held dear to you will be gone. All you’ll be left with are the memories you’ve made and the reminders of the people who left their imprint on your heart. They also say our sense of smell is the most powerful in triggering memories. For me, all it takes is one whiff of almond extract and it’s like I’ve stepped back in time to childhood Christmases with my grandparents. In these moments, it’s so easy to see just how a Christmas cookie recipe brought my family closer…
These memories? They’re not of some grand trip to a ski lodge or holidays spent touring Italian villas. They’re decidedly more simple memories — of the smell of almond cookies, the sound of laughter and the sight of family togetherness.
For as long as I can remember, my family would pile in our tiny car and make the 1,000-mile journey to Southern Alabama. It had become one of my favorite family traditions, and I’d excitedly stare out the window and watch the world roll by, the December landscape of the Midwest transforming into the rolling hills of Kentucky and finally into the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.
On our first night there, once the dinner dishes had been cleared, my grandmother would open the freezer and rustle around for the cookie tin full of the goodies I’d been waiting for. Giant, fully decorated “Santa Claus cookies,” as my grandmother called them. It was a recipe she discovered years ago — in the 1940s — and took special care to “personalize” it just the way she wanted.
Making them was quite the event: She’d make them weeks before we arrived to be sure she could get everything just right. The dough needed to be chilled for hours and then rolled before the decorating could begin, which was really the most fun part of the process. Coconut for Santa’s beard. Chocolate chips for his eyes. A red hot for his nose. And red frosting for his suit, naturally.
As we sat around the table and enjoyed my grandmother’s creations, we’d listen to her tell story after story — tales from her childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to her time in nursing school to what it was like to marry my grandfather and say goodbye to him right after as he went overseas during WWII. To me, her life was like a storybook that literally came to life, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
As I got older, those cookies began to take on a whole new meaning for me. They were delicious and addictive, sure, but they became a symbol. A literal symbol of family togetherness that I could count on every year without fail. In sharing her cookies, she was sharing her life with all of us — we learned things about her and heard amazing stories we might never have heard if we didn’t take the time to sit down together. It was comforting and cozy and everything one’s childhood should be. Because when I took the first bite of those cookies, I instantly knew that I was home.
These days, my mom keeps the family recipe alive, even putting her own original spin on the cookies; instead of Santa Claus, she prefers round cookies full of thick, gooey frosting and topped with lots of sprinkles. In fact, her cookies have become so popular that people request them. They’ve made appearances at churches events, family parties and have comforted people in their time of need. And when my cousin came to visit a couple years ago, my mom taught her how to make them, passing the famed tradition on to the next generation. We’re always joking that we should open our own bakery someday, but maybe we’re actually on to something. We have my grandmother’s wonderful tradition to thank for that.
Just as our family has changed over the years, so too have those almond cookies — from Santa Claus’s likeness to a simple round cookie. But what’s most important has stayed the same: My grandmother made those cookies with such love for the people she loved most; that’s one of the best gifts you could ever give someone. She’s given me a gift I’ll never forget, and I know I’ll carry it with me forever.
The recipe wasn’t anything fancy, but then again, maybe it really wasn’t just about those cookies. My grandmother knew something quite remarkable: Family is everything. It was that love and an important sense of family that she passed down to us — those lessons will last far longer than those yummy cookies.