Friday, December 4, 2009

Roots of Christmas Cookie Longings

Well, the Christmas Cookies started creeping into my brain yesterday. It happens every year, those cookies. Ever since I started celebrating Christmas when I was 18, I've had a mad affair with them. You see, I spent a lot of years in my childhood seeing *other* kids eat those beautiful Christmas cookies, but not being allowed to have any myself.

I started out my life with the usual holiday excitement in December: a lighted tree, trips to see Santa, special cookies and treats and cards on the wall, and presents on Christmas. When I was five years old (old enough to notice), my mother changed religions and we no longer celebrated Christmas at all. The month of December, when my friends, neighbors and schoolmates were excitedly talking about Christmas, became a month of confusion for me as a small child. Christmas was now "wrong" and "bad," and I was forbidden to partake in the seasonal traditions in any way. Back in the day, they even used to have Christmas at school. There were decorations everywhere. I'd go to art class and be given a project of coloring a picture of Santa and gluing cotton balls on his beard, and I'd say, "I'm not allowed to do that." I'd be singled out with an alternate project (snowman) and have to field questions about why I was different. I'd go to music class and stand silently as the other children sang "We wish you a Merry Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." I got kicked out of orchestra because I wouldn't play Christmas carols in the concert. But the worst part every year in Elementary School was the class Christmas party. I dreaded it as much when I was 10 as I did when I was 5 years old.

It would start in early December, with the teacher instructing everyone to write their names down on a slip of paper and put them into a fishbowl. Then each child would draw a name for the present exchange that would happen during the class Christmas party.

I hated it. I hated sitting there not putting my name in the bowl, and standing there not taking a name FROM the bowl. All the kids thought I was strange, or selfish, or poor, or stupid. It sucked. They'd all stand around chattering excitedly about what they were going to get for each other, who got whom in the draw, and which kind of cookies their mother was bringing to the party. And I stood in the back, alone.

All month long, Christmas treats would pop up. In the cafeteria, they'd hand out frosted Christmas sugar cookies, and I'd go through the line and shake my head and say "no thank you." Teachers would hand out candy canes or small treats and I'd say "no thank you." And then the culmination of my discomfort: the class Christmas party.

Instead of just keeping me home that day or offering to come and pick me up early, my mother insisted I go to school and "learn to stand by my faith and be an example of what is right" (a heavy burden for a 5 or 6 year old). And so every year, I was there when we were sitting in class doing our math and suddenly "Santa" would burst into the classroom with a "Ho Ho Ho!" and all the children would jump up squealing with delight. He'd open his bag and start handing out goodies... mothers would enter the classroom with plates of cookies and cupcakes... and kids would break out their brightly wrapped gifts to exchange with each other. And I would sit in the hall.

As soon as Santa entered, I'd be ushered out to the stark hallway to sit on a hard chair for an hour while the parties went on. I could hear the laughter. I could smell the frosting. Kids would walk past me in the hallway and wonder what kind of trouble I was in that I was excluded from the Christmas party. They'd laugh at me. They'd say "wow you must have done something really bad!" They'd smirk and take bites of cookies as they went by. And I'd sit there, praying. Thinking about how I was the only one doing the "right thing" and how God must be very pleased with me. And then I'd go home to a house devoid of any celebration or brightness, and a mother who was oblivious to how isolated I truly felt. To a mother who didn't realize how greatly it affected me to remember being 5 and having Christmas, and then suddenly never again have a frosted sugar cookie or a candy cane or a wrapped present again in my life.

You'd think that when I grew up I'd just get over this stuff. I decided when I was 18 to go back to a semi-"normal" life and celebrate Christmas with the rest of Christian America. I decided I wanted my kids to enjoy a lighted tree and giving gifts and all the other traditions that go along with this holiday. But I am *not* over it, it deeply affected me and my mother never gave me a bit of comfort over the emotional isolation I endured at school. And as a result, I sort of tend to go overboard with my own kids at Christmastime. It is MY Christmas too. It is every present I never opened or gave, it is every Christmas cookie I never got to eat in school. It is every piece of Christmas fudge I watched my classmates eating. It is like you put that me-child into a windowless room full of Christmas and let her have everything she ever missed, without the attached guilt. That's how Christmas cookies are for me.

I make them every year. I am obsessive about it. I want to see my kids enjoy them. I love giving them to people. I love seeing Christmas cookies all over my kitchen and knowing that IF I WANT ONE I can have it. I CAN and no one is there taunting me or sitting me in the hallway while they indulge.

I AM going to make cookies for Christmas every year for the rest of my life. I am as protective of that as anyone could possible be, and if I even *consider* not making Christmas cookies, my claws come out and I start flipping. This is something that just *is.* I think my childhood experience has made it so, and I am not interested in *fixing* it. I gave up baking for 11 other months of the year to make my life healthier, but Christmas baking is going to happen, without guilt, and I am going to enjoy every second of it.

I've discovered that I don't have to EAT a bunch of cookies to get the absolute comfort and happiness of Christmas cookies. It's the baking, the making them with my kids, the decorating them, the watching others enjoy them... it's the PERMISSION to have them that I need. And I have that. I do watch myself, and limit the number of days cookies are around. I do allow myself some Christmas cookies... it sort of feels like I am healing the inner child somehow... not with food really, but with the whole normalcy and embrace that Christmas feels like to me. I need that. I need a tree with lights, and a present to open, and Christmas music.

So yesterday when I started getting emails with photos and recipes for "new" types of Christmas cookies in them, I started to drool. I thought about making every single type that I saw. I worried about how I would manage to limit myself to just a few types of cookies to bake. I started to save the recipes on my computer, and then, I just didn't. I deleted them. Because really, my soul is completely soothed by the simple tree-shaped frosted sugar cookies that I remember seeing my classmates eat as a child. A couple of chocolate crinkles, some molasses cookies, a bit of fudge. It's enough. It makes me happy. The point isn't to add fancier and "better" cookies and treats every year. The point is tradition and enjoyment. And I can do that with what I have.

Maybe you want Christmas cookies, too. Maybe it reminds you of baking with your Grandma, or the family gatherings of your childhood, or special holidays with your Dad. Whatever. It's ok. Food associations are not BAD. Just be aware. Explore your reasons and your feelings. Decide what it will take to bring you that feeling of connection and comfort, and let it be. Have your cookie if it makes you happy. Just understand it and plan for it. A few cookies in December will not destroy an entire year of healthy eating, but denying ones' self an emotional connection might. Know yourself, make a plan, and enjoy the holidays.


Losing 100 said...

My heart hurts for all you went through as a child. I'm glad that you get the experience the JOY of the season now. My family has these round almond Christmas cookies that we have every year- but only at Christmas. We are going to be out of town this year, and I'm thinking of making some and taking them with us!

It sounds like you've got a good plan to manage those cookies. (I took notes.)

Autumnforest said...

Yeah, I totally get you. Kids do not want to be left out and made to be different. It wasn't really the cookies, it was the being left out. It's understandable kids make the association. It sound likes as an adult you really get it. Xmas isn't the sweet eating, it's making things for loved ones and cozy fires, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I end up having to go to parties and people have lots of treats and I tell them I'm allergic to chocolate (I am--I break out in fat!) It's just easier that way than to say "I have no control around that substance!" I make Xmas cookies that aren't chocolate because I'm one of those weird women who won't eat any sweet that has no chocolate. We find our ways around the temptations. It's really about creating the Xmas you want as an adult and not on the one you didn't get as a child. You are a very wise woman and I can see you really get that it was never about the Xmas cookie...

Anonymous said...

First I just wanted to say that I completely agree with you about the fact that (besides the eating) there are so many things to enjoy about baking. I adore baking…year-round…but since I am also on a weight loss journey, what I ever I make, I immediately give some to my husband and then take the rest to work. If it’s something small, like a cupcake or cookies, I will keep one for myself and that is it. Plus, baking during the Christmas time is extra fun…how fun is decorating sugar cookies? Come on, I would never give that up.

Second, I am really glad that you said “Food associations are not BAD. Just be aware.” As someone who has slowly learned (still learning!) not to go to food for everything that happens in life, one thing that has always irked me along the way is how so many fit people make it seem as if food is only ever there to satiate you and never to be enjoyed. That’s crazy! Food is wonderful and it SHOULD be enjoyed but as you said, one needs to be aware and not go overboard.

Ms. Geek said...

As always I'm inspired by your blog and it is exactly on target with what I need to hear. I have many many food associations with my past and good memories. Much of my family have now passed on and Christmas is often a sad time for me. So take that sadness and add in there that I'm trying not to indulge my internal food addict and there's a big old mix of want and need and confusion and guilt. I will keep your post in mind. I wish I could give that little one that you were a big ol hug , but it sounds like you are taking care of her. I'm going to work on finding the balance for me to find joy in the season.

bbubblyb said...

I didn't think I would find myself tearing up reading your post. But I felt terrible for you as that poor little child not getting to join in to the Christmas celebration at school. I wish you could be given those years back.

I also found myself thinking about my grandmom and how lovingly she made us many different types of cookies every Christmas. This year I think I will be making thin sugar cookies, just like my grandmom use made, for my 2 sisters. I know it won't be about the cookies for them either but about the love we remember from our grandmom. *hugs*

Lalie said...

Your story is only one reason why I feel all religion needs to be abolished. xmas is a secular holiday anyway. How very selfish of any parent to force their silly mythology upon a small child. Yet this still happens all over the world today as if we were still rooted in the middle ages. Very sad indeed that any religion still be in existence anywhere in the world.
Yes, it all makes me really angry. No wonder we all have so many deep seated issues to struggle with.
I want to cry for the little girl you were all alone in the hallway. I'm sorry that ever had to happen to you.


Becky said...

This is an interesting and timely post for me. I have been a big holiday baker for years and years. I have felt very conflicted about it this year. I bake beautiful Christmas cookies, and I love packaging them. I have 40 packages I give out to various people at work. I've had people tell me that they loved them so much they'd like to buy them, and then ask where they could get them and be amazed to learn that I actually baked them myself. I'm quite the Martha in this regard. This year, I couldn't decide whether to bake. I felt like I wanted bake, because this is so much a part of my Christmas tradition, and people might even be disappointed not to get the cookies! But I then decided that I'm not doing it this year. It's not so much that I think I'd binge on cookies. I really don't think I'd do that. It's rather that I really and truly believe that these are not healthy food choices, even in moderation, and if I believe that, how can I give my friends such a gift? I don't want to impose my diet beliefs on others, but nor do I want to be seen endorsing food that I don't think is healthy . . . So that's where I came out this year. Maybe I'll rethink next year! Good luck to you in the holiday food fest -- these give us a lot to think about!

Anonymous said...

Dear Lyn,

As an elementary teacher, my heart just broke as I read your story, I cannot even imagine how you felt. I'm so thankful that you are dealing with this and making Christmas so special for your own children.


Certifiably Fit said...

Wow I can only imagine what you must have felt like being kept from not participating with the rest of the class in school. Hope you have a great holiday season now. I like your plan on managing the cookies.

Anonymous said...

Your mother sounds like as big a head case as mine, just different ways of it coming out. Well done doing better for your kids and for yourself.


Mary said...

Lyn, I am so sorry for what you experienced as a child. One of my junior high friends was not allowed to celebrate holidays or birthdays, and it always made me so sad that she was left out.

I hope you enjoy baking those cookies! There are a few kinds I associate with my childhood that it just wouldn't be Christmas if they weren't there!

Tony the Pink Panda said...

I honestly think that in order to conquer binging/overeating behavior you have to first break that emotional attachment to food. I really enjoyed this post because it made me realize what foods I have an emotional attachment to and how they can break me down when I'm around them.

flyingwoman said...

Ah yes....

I started really early this year. I tried to do all my baking at once last year and was exhausted when done, and because of that I ate way too many. I'm mostly done except for the gingerbread, which I swore to my sister in law that I'd make with her and my niece - that happens this Sunday.

It was nice to have them done so early. It meant I could bring over a little batch to my neighbours on Eid-al-Adha and enjoy a little of their kheer with them (yum!)

My answer to not going too crazy (and to not having stale cookies at Christmas) is the freezer. I choose recipes that freeze well. I make my double batch, I have ONE myself and give ONE to my husband and then pack them all up and into the deep freeze.

When I'm going to a party or putting out a plate, I assemble them hours (or days) early, and no one is the wiser when they defrost, by which time they are safely given.

Then the challenge is just the Christmas party and everyone else's baking. Especially my mother's.

Patsy said...

Am I the only woman who can take or leave chocolate?!?

Well done with your plan to avoid a potential cookie downfall!

Stella said...

A lovely self exploratory piece. I'm glad I've found your blog!

Vickie said...

hugs to both the child 'you' and the adult 'you'.

No offense meant - delete this if it is rude - When you look back on your mom, with adult knowledge, do you think her thinking/behaviors were based on how she was raised or a chemical imbalance thing?

I am not saying that people that do not celebrate xmas are disfunctional - but her not rounding, even-ing things out - pretty much is, don't you think?

Lyn said...


I don't mind you asking. I forgive her, because she has one of the most difficult upbringings I can imagine (some of which I have shared on this site) plus she did have chemical imbalance issues as well. I think she did the best she could... and she was a far most lost child than I ever was.

screwdestiny said...

Yeah, I'm not trying to be rude either, but I think that was pretty messed up of your mom to impose on you like that. I think that about all the kids I've ever seen forced to not celebrate holidays (I knew a few in school). It should be their decision, at least when they're not at home. But it's great that you're able to celebrate Christmas exactly how you want now. :) I hope you have a great holiday again this year.

Karen in Tennessee said...

Oh Lyn, there are tears in my eyes thinking of that little 6 year old in the hallway unable to enjoy the fun of her classmates. I would imagine a child never gets over that and parents in these religions need to be informed of the damage that can be done. My goddaughter had a similar experience when Christmas and birthdays were ripped from her life at age 8. By age 16 her mother had found another religion and Christmas was back...but what about those 8 yead of being so different from the other kids at school? It caused many conflicts between her mother and me because I could SEE how much she was hurting my godchild. My goddaughter does Christmas in a BIG way now...compensation for those lost years...but nothing ever really fixes the damage done to a sad little soul.

You will do great with your cookies and still have a great loss this month. You will make the holidays special for your children, and that (more than cookies) will make this holiday wonderful for you!!!

Chloe said...

May I ask if you were a Jehovah's Witness?
I only ask because that was how I grew up, well, aside form the fact that we didn't have Christmas parties in school, and no one I knew had a problem with candy canes. My luck was that we left when I as nine, and have been exuberantly celerating holiays ever since.
I can understand what it's like to want to take the chance to make all the food, eat all he candy, drink all the cider as you can, because it's such a special once-a-year deal. To date, the holidays are my biggest weak point in over indulging.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau said...

My god, what religion was this?
I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, and we still had the tree, the presents. (OK, pretty moderate in the cookie dept, since the Chinese are a bit thin-obsessed.) But the point is, my parents wanted us to fit in with American traditions.
Most of the Jewish kids I knew had Hanukkah gifts well-timed to coordinate with when other kids got presents.
Chinese, Jewish, whatever. I never saw a parent take away a candy cane for religious purposes!
Merry Xmas to you and your family.