Your Doorway into Christmas


Jeanette Winterson, the British author perhaps most well-known for her coming-of-age autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, has a sacred Christmas ritual. Every Christmas Eve, at 3pm, she listens to a service on BBC radio, broadcast live from Kings College in Cambridge. There are Bible readings from the Old and New Testament and in between, the choir sings carols — both classic and contemporary. While Winterson sings along and listens, she pours herself a glass of Veuve Cliquot and fixes a smoked salmon sandwich on really good dark bread. “…You can watch it on TV,” she writes in her new collection Christmas Days. “But why would you? The beauty is in the music, the voices, the readings and prayers. And a sense of continuity…And a sense of belonging to something more necessary than shopping and party-going.”

But the most important part of the ritual, she says, is that she does it by herself. “Ritual has anticipatory relevance,” she writes. “We prepare for it, practically and psychologically. That’s part of its benefit.” And then: “It’s about making your own raft of time. Your own doorway into Christmas.”

{Amazing how someone can nail in five words what I tried to communicate in 300 pages.}

The whole book is pretty great. (Here is my official review for the Times if you are interested.) Winterson is a Christmas lover of the first order, and the collection is a grab-bag of food essays that center around the holiday (like the smoked salmon ritual), interspersed with a dozen Christmas stories — including some of the classic Victorian Ghost variety — that you can read to your kids in front of the fire. (Well, most of them at any rate.) But as I wrap up a six-month series on family rituals, it was Winterson’s meditation on her Christmas Eve tradition that I felt the need to share in this space. Especially since, unlike every other ritual I have featured lately, it does not require a kind of obscene amount of butter and sugar. (What is it about warm baked goods that conjure up all the feelings? Don’t answer that.)

And I really like the idea of ending the year with Winterson’s beautiful words: All rituals are doorways. It’s appropriate beyond the holidays of course — the chocolate mud cake I eat for my birthday every year is a doorway I need to walk through to get into the spirit of celebration, but it also gives me access to memories of eating it in my best friend’s kitchen. This time of year, I need those doorways more than ever. Because if I’m not careful, the season of magic and giving and wonder can easily turn into the season of stress and to-do lists and yelling at the guy who stole the last spot in the mall parking lot while I had my blinker on. I think you know what I mean.

I’ve been writing this blog a long time, so most of you know that it’s not just one ritual that makes up our holiday. But if I had to choose our doorway into Christmas, the one that gets us all into the right psychological place, it would be baking cookies with Andy’s mom (“Hubba”), using a recipe that he baked from when he was a kid. (If you need proof, his mom will proudly show you the nibble marks on her yellow plastic measuring cup.) The recipe is nothing fancy. Butter, sugar, vanilla, baking powder, eggs, flour. And you won’t find the decorated finished product on any of your favorite Pinterest boards. But it’s our doorway into Christmas. And it’s so much better than yelling at someone in a parking lot.

Have a wonderful holiday — be safe, be present. And see you in the new year.


Hubba’s Christmas Cookies
Makes about 3 Dozen
I’ve run this a bunch of times before, but, in the name of tradition, wanted to make sure it was top of the queue again. You can also find the recipe (as well as an entire Christmas menu) in How to Celebrate Everything.

In a large bowl, whisk together:

  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt

In another large bowl, using a mixer, blend together until light and fluffy:

  • 3/4 cups softened unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla (or almond extract, if that’s your thing)

Slowly beat flour mix into butter mixture. Wrap in wax paper and chill in fridge until firm, at least 1 hour. Roll out dough on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick. Using your favorite cookie cutters, make cookies. Bake at 350°F for 8 to 10 minutes.

Frosting

Blend together: 1/4 cup butter, 4 cups powdered sugar, 1/4 cup milk (heated), 1 teaspoon vanilla. Separate into bowls and add two or three drops of food coloring to each. Spread on cooled cookies and top with sprinkles and sugar crystals. The frost will be gooey at first, but will harden after spread. If frosting hardens in the bowl, just stir with a whisk to loosen it. Apply liberally.


See my full write-up of Christmas Days in this week’s Book Review.

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5 Comments

Valerie

Your cookies look exactly like the cookies I used to bake and decorate with my mom. The photo reminds me of the Christmas of my childhood.

Reply
Jenn

I made Hubba’s Christmas Cookies for the first time this year using the recipe in the book and they are, hands down, the best cut-out cookie recipe I’ve ever used. The cookies were easy to cut out, baked easily and four days later the few remaining are still soft, not dried out and crunchy! Thank you for sharing the recipe!

Reply
Debbie

Love how your advance copy of her book already looks well loved!! Must be a keeper! I received “How to Celebrate Everything” under the tree this year and am really enjoying it…well done!

Reply
Lisa

We made hubba’s cookies the other day–they were amazing and my kids had a blast. Have you frozen this dough? I made a second batch thinking we wouldn’t have enough!

Reply
Renee

After I read your NYT review I immediately reserved this book from the library. I cannot tell you how much I love it and how perfect it is for this time of year. I think I’m going to read my kids the SnowMama story tonight. Definitely adding this title as a perfect gift for friends next year. Thanks so much!

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