I love the holidays. I love the crisp cold air, the festive lights and displays in store windows, the happy smiles of children, and sipping hot chocolate with marshmallows in front of a fire. Put some mint schnapps in the hot chocolate, and life is even better! I also love holiday traditions, which is probably because I grew up in a house without any holiday traditions. When I was old enough to care, this seemed to me a great freedom. One year for Christmas dinner we might have a ham, another year a goose. Or we might just go out to a Chinese restaurant instead. We experimented and we had a lot of fun. I pitied my friends who had to have the same boring ham every year.
On the other hand, my parents didn’t really care about Christmas or the holidays. While my brother and I were children, they went through the motions. They decorated a tree, perpetuated the Santa Claus myth, and we woke up to wrapped presents under the tree. But as I got older, it was always me who decorated the tree and me who planned the Christmas dinner menu. On the last year before I moved away to University, it seemed I was the only one who cared at all. No one had made any Christmas preparations, bought a tree, or decorated the house. The day before Christmas, I went out to get a tree, which was kind of ragged and sad looking being one of the only three left in the tree lot. I decorated it all by myself. Everyone laughed when they saw the tree; it was so scraggly and forlorn.
Perhaps this is why, when I had my own children, I was determined to have things for them to look forward to, to create that magical Christmas spirit that they would enjoy, not just as children but as adults also. So my husband and I have made our own traditions. Fun traditions. One of our favorite traditions is making cookies to decorate our tree. When our first son, Gustaf, was just two years old, inspired by a magazine cover, I decided to make some cookies and hang them on a tree. I made stars, snowflakes, and gingerbread boys. Since I was the only one decorating, they were decorated with only white frosting in delicate curlicues with an occasional silver dragee. They were elegant and looked fabulous on the tree.
Peter was inspired by my efforts and made a batch of the Christmas cookies of his childhood, a ginger cookie and insisted that I buy a pig cookie cutter, which is a traditional Swedish shape. My white decorations looked fabulous on those, also.
When the children were very small, they loved these cookies, so much so, that we had to keep a vigilant eye on the tree to make sure that the cookies stayed on through Christmas. We let them eat one cookie each on the days leading up to Christmas, and then we let them go at it when Christmas was through.
When the children got a bit older, they were not content to let me decorate the cookies by myself, they wanted to help. I can confess that the first year that they decorated; I let them eat their creations and only hung up my own. But the next year, they were old enough to notice that I wasn’t hanging up their cookies and insisted that theirs be up there too. So, I hung up their cookies, with their blobs of frosting and off-kilter smears. When the cookies were all hung, I realized that even the worst decorated cookie, artistically speaking, still looked great. All the colors just blurred into a happy, comforting, delicious looking tree. When the boys were 4 and 7, I asked them what was their favorite thing about Christmas, expecting the answer to be the presents, but both boys said without hesitation, “Decorating the Christmas cookies!” They still love it and so do I. Here is the recipe for Swedish pepparkakor, a spiced ginger cookie.
2 dl sugar
1 dl water
1 dl light syrup
125 grams butter
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ tablespoon ground cardamom
½ tablespoon ground cloves
½ tablespoon ground dried bitter orange peel (pomeransskal)*
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Grated zest of one orange
7 dl (about 375 grams) of all purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking soda
Cut the butter in pieces and put in a large bowl. Measure out all the spices and put them in the bowl with the butter.
Combine sugar, water, and syrup in a saucepan and heat on the stove until it reaches a rolling boil.
Pour the hot sugar mixture over the butter and stir until the butter is melted. Let the mixture cool until room temperature. Mix in the flour and baking soda to form a loose dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough sit in the refrigerator overnight (or longer). The dough will firm up as it sits.
When ready to bake, take a small portion of the dough and knead a bit. Roll out the dough on a floured board and use cookie cutters to cut into whatever shape is desired. You can use a thin spatula to help you lift up the cut cookies. Lay the cookies on a buttered baking sheet or a sheet with parchment paper. Bake in an oven 180 C (350 F) for about 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookie. Keep an eye on the first batch to see when it is done because these cookies are easy to burn.
You can garnish the cookies with almond halves, if you like. Press the halves firmly into the dough before baking.
*Pomeransskal, dried bitter orange peel, is readily sold in Swedish stores. If you cannot find this, you can increase the amount of fresh orange zest or omit it all together.