Much as I resent the ever-creeping boundaries of the festive season (Christmas decorations sharing retail shelf space with Hallowe’en candy, anyone?), I know I can’t postpone my Christmas planning any longer. Common sense tells me a few minutes of frenzied list-making now will save me untold agony in a few weeks, when the craziness is in full swing. That’s why, instead of flying by the seat of my pants as I usually do, I’m going to sit down with Younger Daughter tomorrow to figure out a holiday baking schedule.
It goes without saying that gingerbread men will be number one on the list. To me, it’s not Christmas without gingerbread. I never eat it any other time of year, and I automatically flash back to Christmases past when I catch a whiff of that unmistakable aroma.
My daughters have always loved gingerbread men (and women, of course — we’re an equal opportunity family when it comes to confections!) They used to run around the house with their cookies, chanting the words from the eponymous story:
Run, run, as fast as you can.
You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!
Baking gingerbread men with my children is a Christmas tradition that began when they were very young. And like many traditions, it’s evolved over the years. At first, they watched Mummy make the cookies and were content to shake a few sprinkles on the finished product. Later, decorating gingerbread houses was a way to keep their excitement in check on December 24th while they waited for Christmas Eve to begin.
As they grew, my daughters morphed from wide-eyed spectators to hands-on participants, taking over the lion’s share of the work. But their growing maturity wasn’t the only factor that contributed to the shape-shifting nature of this beloved custom: expatriation played a role as well.
With humidity levels hovering around the 85% mark, baking was a challenge in Singapore. Even after cranking up the aircon in the kitchen, the dough was impossible to work with for more than a few minutes at a time (and shivering through the process only added to our frustration!) The Singapore years introduced a new austerity to our holiday tradition: we limited ourselves to baking a single batch each December. The weight of all our Yuletide expectations rested on the slender gingerbread shoulders of those few precious men, but they never let us down.
Although I was hyper-aware of the importance of upholding family traditions when living abroad, we skipped the Christmas cookies when we lived in France. Why bother baking when every patisserie in town offered a glorious selection of baked goods? Time was also a factor: the girls’ school day didn’t finish until 5:00, and I was snowed under with research and coursework. More to the point, that Christmas season coincided with the absolute nadir of my expat life. Frankly, baking cookies was not a high priority that year.
Repatriating brought yet more changes to the tradition. Elder Daughter discovered boys and opted out entirely, leaving Younger Daughter and me alone in the kitchen. Over the past three years, we’ve expanded our repertoire beyond gingerbread, and we bake like fiends in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We’ve become ambitious in our planning; our reach has not yet exceeded our grasp, although it’s come close! Working in tandem has forged a new bond between us as we spend countless hours mixing, icing, and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. I look forward to the happy rhythm of this mother-daughter ritual; there is sweet satisfaction in creating something good together, and sharing the fruits of our labour with those we love.
I was planning to end the story there, but shortly after I began writing this post, Elder Daughter decided — quite out of the blue — to bake cookies. As I type these final lines, the air is redolent with the spicy scent of gingerbread, and my heart is full of memories. I don’t know what prompted her return to the kitchen, but I’m hoping that fifteen years and three international moves after it began, the gingerbread tradition is about to undergo another transformation.
God bless the Gingerbread Man. Long may he run!
What holiday traditions have followed your family from country to country? Please leave your comments below.