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Image: A man holds a candle in Bogota
Fredy Builes  /  Reuters file
Candles illuminate a Christmas festival in Bogata, Colombia. Across many religions, winter festivals share a theme: light shining through darkness.
TODAY
updated 12/23/2009 1:04:51 PM ET 2009-12-23T18:04:51

As I write this on the shortest day of 2009, in the premature twilight I can count 15 windows lit in a tall apartment building not far from my Florida condominium. Those 15 dwellings are the only ones occupied in a building of 185 apartments — an imposing monument to the broken dreams of last year’s economic meltdown. And far from the only one: Our town, like many others, is checkered with empty storefronts.

Let’s face it: For a lot of us, this hasn’t been an easy year. Economic times continue to be the most challenging I have seen since I was a young girl in eastern Pennsylvania during the Depression. And where do we look for inspiration in these dark days? To our legislators? Though tens of millions of Americans remain uninsured, they seem unable to do anything about it except snipe and squabble. To our financial leaders? Last spring, Bernard Madoff pled guilty to wiping out billions of dollars worth of hopes and dreams. To our idols? The golf cleats of Tiger Woods, who appeared to be the epitome of grace and precision while playing the most frustrating game ever invented, turned out to contain feet of clay. No wonder many of have a sour taste in our mouths just as we try to summon some modicum of holiday cheer.

On a more personal level, several sad events have darkened the waning days of the year for me and mine. My husband’s identical twin recently died, and for him the pain is uniquely intimate, like the loss of a limb. At around the same time, my daughter-in-law lost her mother after a month-long hospital ordeal, abruptly altering the lives of her and my son; overnight she became the guardian of her own father as he slowly fades into the tragic twilight of Alzheimer’s. As for me, I lost the last two of my remaining siblings over the past two months. I feel like Ishmael; only I have survived to tell our family’s tale. But mostly I just feel sad.

At times like these, the hurlyburly of the holidays can seem like an imposition. But it can also provide welcome distraction: To keep my heart from aching, I’m baking.

The Cookie Factory
Making Christmas cookies has been a labor of love for me virtually all my life. When I was a little girl, my siblings and I helped my mom roll out the dough, cut out the shapes, and apply the frosting and colored sugars. Then when I became a mom myself, I had small helpers of my own for a time.

Image: Cookie cutters
Featurepics
The Cookie Factory, as we called it, was a big enough enterprise that I usually spread it out over two days: one for baking, one for decorating. If you try my family recipe (below) with young assistants of your own, I recommend you do the same: It’s a wonderful holiday tradition, but it takes time and diligent attention. Typically I bake on Day 1, then store the baked cookies overnight. On Day 2, you can make the frosting, then divide the cookies so that each child has their own batch to decorate.

But in recent years, I have had only one assistant — my husband, whose role in the Cookie Factory used to consist solely of consuming its product. And an extra step has been added to the process: packaging the cookies carefully and mailing them to my sons in time for Christmas. Yet still the labor of love goes on — and as I perform it, memories of other helping hands, in other kitchens, seem to fill the air along with the heavenly fragrance of freshly baked holiday treats.

And as I bake, I know that in other kitchens around the world, similar traditions are being carried out. I know because my readers tell me so: A mom in Schaller, Iowa, who shares her grandmother’s secret for keeping her roasted turkey moist and golden (a thin white dishtowel, buttered and draped over the breast); a man in Phoenix who says he would trade today for the holidays he remembers in a minute; a woman writing all the way from China, who says my Thanksgiving column reminded her of sharing food and family warmth at Chinese New Year.

Light in the darkness
I guess certain things are universal, even among religions. As winter comes and the days grow short, Christians like me festoon our homes and Christmas trees with cheerful lights that pierce the darkness and evoke a wondrous star that once heralded a momentous event in the humblest of settings. Jews light menorahs, reflecting a flame that miraculously burned without oil; African-Americans light kinaras to honor their roots; Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs observe Diwali, the festival of lights; Muslims celebrate the joys of family and give to the poor at Eid al-Adha. Though the details differ, the essential message remains much the same: Peace on Earth. Good will toward men.

Slideshow: Faces of Santa As I write, legislation that would allow tens of millions of Americans access to health care now denied them teeters on the brink of passage in Washington. As I write, a father waits in Rio de Janeiro, his bags bulging with toys for the son he has been fighting five years to be reunited with. As I write, only 15 lights glow in a building of 185 dwellings — but around it other lights twinkle, in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees. The familiar shapes of Christmas cookie cutters.

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As I write, it is the shortest, darkest day of the year. But I know that now, little by little, the days will grow longer and brighter again. The light of hope rekindles in my heart as the aroma of freshly baked cookies fills the air, along with a familiar melody, one bearing tidings of comfort and joy.

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.

Ingredients
  • 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
Preparation

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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