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Image: Cookie cutters
Making inexpensive Christmas cookies together is an ideal way to spend your most precious commodity on loved ones: time.
updated 12/19/2008 11:01:30 AM ET 2008-12-19T16:01:30

The holidays should be a time of joy, but that doesn’t mean they come without challenges. Much of the mail I’ve been getting is from people grappling with how to enjoy the season without spending as much as they used to.

Joanne Kerr in Pittsburgh puts her finger on it: “The entire country has changed their spending habits over the last few months,” she writes. “Hopefully everyone will conserve … spend a dollar instead of a million.” From necessity for many, by choice for others, conspicuous consumption has gone out of style — at least for the time being.

Simpler times
Maybe that’s why I get the sense from your e-mails that many people yearn for a simpler time when there didn’t seem to be as much pressure to build heaps of packages under the tree. “What do you remember about Christmas when you were younger?” LaDonna Matney-Dowie of Waterbury, Conn., asks. “I am going to guess you got one gift if you were lucky.” Helene G. in Collegeville, Pa., chimes in: “I can’t imagine the kids of today being happy with only a Christmas stocking filled with cookies and a quarter. My mother said they’d wait all year for that one quarter!”

Both of you are on the money, so to speak: On Christmas morning my siblings and I would find the white stockings we’d hung on a chair rail filled mostly with walnuts and candy, anchored by a big orange at the bottom. I particularly remember the pink pillow candies that stuck to the inside of the stocking (we ate them anyhow).

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We had all written letters to Santa (which, I would learn later, our uncle burned), and in response, each of us got one toy that was age- and gender-appropriate: dolls and doll cribs for girls, for example, skates and sports equipment for boys. But we also got clothing and books: My brothers enjoyed boys’ adventure stories, while I loved paper dolls that you dressed in outfits with folding tabs.

We may not have been prosperous, but we didn’t feel poor. We heard our parents talking about Hoover and Roosevelt, but it was the people who owned stock who were jumping off buildings. Miners, like my father, were still getting paid; people still had to have coal.

Family fun
My uncles had mining-related jobs too, and they brought us toys that we were all expected to share, like Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys. And when we got bored with those, we turned to dominoes, card games, checkers and chess — pastimes parents and kids alike can still enjoy together today, whether or not you have a Wii or an Xbox.

Ken Erd, a “youngster” four years shy of my age writing all the way from South Korea, admits his Social Security check “limits the potential for Christmas gifts for the family.”  But he uses technology to overcome both cost and distance by taking digital pictures of family members, printing them on quality paper from his computer, and mounting them in inexpensive frames for “the many members of our extended family.”

Ken has the right idea. As a nurse I have seen both life and death up close, and it is my considered medical opinion that none of us is going to live forever. Money may come and go, but time is the most precious commodity we can expend on loved ones. The charms of even the fanciest gift can fade over time — unless it comes wrapped in effort and thoughtfulness.

That goes for food, too. Many readers have been asking me for economical holiday recipes, so I am passing along a recipe for the Christmas cookies that have been a tradition in my family for years. These are fun to make as well as eat; children love to help cut them out and decorate them. They’re a perfect way to forge fond holiday memories even when your budget is tight, and to spend time — the greatest gift of all — with loved ones.

Recipe: Kitty's Christmas cookies (on this page)

Kitty Schindler, who grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression, shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here .

Recipe: Kitty's Christmas cookies

This recipe goes back at least six generations, each of which probably refined it. How many cookies it yields will vary according to how thin you roll your dough. You (and any young helpers you may have) should resist the impulse to eat the raw cookie dough, because it has uncooked egg in it.

  • For the cookies:
  • 1 lb. margarine or butter (Kitty uses half of each)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 tsps. vanilla flavoring (real or imitation)
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsps. baking powder
  • For the icing:
  • 5 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2 tsps. vanilla flavoring (real or imitation)
  • Colored sugars

For the cookie dough, thoroughly blend the 1 lb. margarine or butter and the granulated sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; stir in vanilla. Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder together, then beat them into the mixture, 1 1/2 cups at a time. You’ll need bread hooks (or a strong arm) for the final cup and a half of flour, because the dough will be quite thick by then.

Divide the dough into thirds. Wrap each in wax paper or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 1/2 or 2 hours. (In a freezer bag, the dough can also be kept in the freezer for several months, then thawed and used as if freshly made.)

Using a floured rolling pin and a well-floured pastry cloth or board, roll the dough out to about 1/4 inch in thickness.Cut cookies out with cookie cutters.

Lay cookies out on nonstick cookie sheets. Bake at 425° F until lightly tinged with brown at the edges, approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Keep an eye on them! When done, remove from cookie sheet and let cool.

For the icing, mix the powdered sugar, 1/4 cup melted butter, lukewarm milk, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla flavoring and beat until creamy, adding the milk gradually until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.

Frost a few cookies at a time. Sprinkle colored sugars on top while the icing is still moist.

Lay the cookies out until the icing dries. Place in sealed containers, where they will keep for several weeks.

Serving Size

Makes 100-plus cookies


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