CHRISTMAS EVE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
As Christmas approached, my mother enlisted the help of us kids in baking dozens of festive cookies. There were white-frosted brownies decorated with candied-cherry poinsettias, gingery molasses crinkles sparkling with red and green sugar, crunchy oatmeal cookies filled with dates and walnuts and topped off with cherries. I clearly remember cutting up dates for these -- I don't suppose there were ready-chopped dates available in those days, and they would have been expensive if available. I remember turning the handle of a nut chopper to chop the walnuts, and pressing the cookies down with a floury glass before topping them with half of a candied cherry.
Sometimes we made mincemeat squares, with the mincemeat filling sandwiched between two layers of a brown-sugary crust. Our beloved "chocolate spritz" cookies were not made with a cookie press, but formed into small round balls and dipped in multicolored candy sprinkles before baking. We always made, in addition, cut-out cookies of nutmeg-flavored dough rolled thin, cut in various shapes and trimmed with raisins, silver dragees, and colored sprinkles. Mom would often make the cookie doughs ahead and store them in the cold front entry. It wouldn't be considered safe or healthy today, but we loved tasting the dough. The chilled dough for the chocolate spritz tasted exactly like chocolate ice cream.
My mother also baked loaves of cinnamon-swirled white bread and dressed them up with a drizzle of white frosting and decorations of candied cherries and sliced almonds. They looked beautiful and smelled even better.
On Christmas Eve or a few nights before, Santa and his sleigh had nothing on my dad, us kids, and the family station wagon. We were out making holiday deliveries of our own. All of us would beg for the privilege of accompanying Dad on his appointed rounds. We would drive around the neighborhood, delivering cookies and visiting for a while at each house. I remember that during the day a tray of treats would be delivered to our family doctor. But in the evening Dad would go out
with the goodies for the neighbors and nearby relatives.
One of my favorite stops was at the Geisslers'. They were a German family who lived in the neighborhood. They owned a local business, but they also had hens, and Mr. Geissler had an egg route. We were among his customers. It was my first inkling of a couple of things -- one, that
there were people actually living in our town who did not have a traditional New England background like ours; and two, that everyone has a different dimension to them that the average person might not be aware of. Until I visited the Geisslers' home with Dad, I saw Mr. Geissler as sort of a peddler -- "the egg man", as we called him. Imagine my surprise that their home was very nice -- nicer than ours. When we went there with the goodies on Christmas Eve, they would invite us in and bring out eggnog for Dad and glasses of icy ginger ale for us kids. I remember being wide-eyed at their tree and noticing shopping bags full of gifts from fancy New York City stores. I'm not sure if they were gifts from faraway relatives, or gifts from the family to one another. Even the bags and boxes were impressive, however! I would try and make the ginger ale last as long as possible so I could keep looking around at everything.
Mrs. Geissler would always send Christmas cookies to our house, too, usually dropped off along with the eggs. My mother kept them in a certain cupboard, and that cupboard always retained a festive, spicy aroma for as long as the cookies lasted. I remember one kind of cookie in particular -- looking back on it now, I think it must have been pfefferneuse. They were perfectly round, dark-colored cookies which were liberally coated in confectioners' sugar. They smelled and looked absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, anise is a flavor I still haven't acquired a taste for! But having those truly German cookies in our very American kitchen sure broadened our horizons.
When I was a child, this sharing of holiday treats was one of the most meaningful parts of our Christmas. It made a big impression on me that at this busy time of the year, my parents took the time and went to the effort to do something special for their neighbors.
And of course, it gave me incentive to do the same kind of thing for my own neighbors once I had a home and family of my own.
Through the years we have often exchanged kitchen gifts with our neighbors. Just today, our neighbor walked through falling snow to deliver a little tin of cookies and a wonderful loaf of sourdough rye bread. And Mr. T headed out on rounds to deliver goodies, just as my dad used to do. It's Christmas Eve in the neighborhood!