Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, Christmas in our house meant collecting pinecones from our yard and frosting them with glitter to make a holiday centerpiece. My younger sister Pam and I cut snowflakes out of white paper and taped them to the windows. With cotton balls, glue and more glitter, we fashioned quart-size milk bottles into snowmen to decorate the fireplace mantle.
We wrote letters to Santa Claus, care of Hengerer's Department Store in Buffalo, hoping Forgetful the Elf would read them on channel 7 TV. We eagerly awaited the first snow, each morning standing on tiptoe on our beds, craning our faces up to the window, anxious for the frosty miracle to occur.
The best part of Christmas though, was the shortbread my mother, sister and I baked into buttery gold that melted in our mouths. Every year we opened the old red Purity Flour Cookbook to the familiar dog-eared recipe page, smeared with our fingerprints from holidays past. We dug out the Christmas music and played it all day while we chopped and mixed and measured. We sang Carols, fueling ourselves with raw cookie dough and tea. We licked our fingers, green and red from sugar sprinkles, sticky with icing, and we laughed.
We cherished this ritual, though it was bittersweet. You see, we never knew from year to year if each Christmas would be my sister’s last - she suffered from Cystic Fibrosis. Yet buoyed by a determination to never give up, Pam was able to share our Christmas ritual well into our young adulthood.
When her last Christmas came, she was just shy of her 25th birthday. I remember how she sat at the end of the kitchen table, tethered to her now ever-present oxygen tank. The plastic oxygen mask covered her nose and mouth. Her shoulders rounded forward, rising and falling with the tide of her breath, riding an ocean of fatigue. Still, she pulled hope along on the end of every labored breath. She creamed the butter in the big yellow mixing bowl, chopped the red and green maraschino cherries, and filled with delight, licked her sticky-sweet fingers, looked at me and laughed.
In that moment as in many others, Pam taught me both the necessity and power of creating joy in the midst of adversity. She believed that every day and every relationship could be a gift if we looked at it that way.
“If we take the chance of seeking out beauty in the world about us, every moment of every day can be treasured,” she once said. “I have learned that no matter what misfortunes or joys one may be faced with, life will surely go on…with love.”
Words to live by at Christmas and through the coming year.
So as always mid-December, I’ll spend a day this week enjoying the ritual baking of shortbread cookies. Stars, holly and angels to melt in your mouth like buttered gold. I’ll listen to the old music - the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Canadian Brass and Bing Crosby. I’ll fuel myself through the afternoon with strong tea and raw cookie dough. Pam will be there with me in my heart, sharing her love, courage, faith, and her sparkling, contagious laughter. Together, we’ll make the spirit of Christmas come alive once more.
Purity Flour Cookbook Christmas Shortbread Recipe
2 Cups butter, softened
1 Cup Icing sugar or Brown Sugar (I use ½ and ½)
¼ tsp. Vanilla
4 cups flour
Cream butter with vanilla and sugar. Mix in flour a cup at a time. Split dough into two batches. Roll one batch out onto floured surface and cut with cookie cutters. Repeat with second batch. Decorate with colored sprinkles and/or chopped maraschino cherries. Bake for ten minutes at 350 degrees.
Adapted from "Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir"