Among the Christmas ornaments I unbox every year are a few handmade gingerbread men, a hole punched through their foreheads with a loop of colorful ribbon threaded through it. My mother made them from balsa wood painted a glossy brown accented with white “frosting,” modeling them after the cookies we made together every year, and sent them out as holiday cards. There’s a cheery holiday greeting penned in silver marker in my mother’s distinctive capital letter print on the back.
My mother adored Christmas, and baking gingerbread men was just one of the cozy rituals she carried out around the holiday — ostensibly for my brother and me, but they fed her too. She kept up the Santa Claus fiction for years after we were old enough to see through it, exclaiming with feigned indignation, “Do I look like an old fat man in a red suit?” when we insisted we knew she was the one filling the stockings. On Christmas Eve she’d read us “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and then we’d stay on the couch and gaze at our tree for a while in silence, waves of contentment and joy almost tangibly emanating from her. These traditions reinforced our bonds as a little family, which she might have felt was even more important given her unusual (in the mid 70s) status as a divorced woman and single mom struggling to support us on her own.
For years she tweaked the cookie recipe, seeking the Platonic ideal of gingerbread men. Another tablespoon of cloves, light molasses rather than dark, shortening instead of butter — gradually she honed in on her perfect formula, writing down instructions on lined notepaper and copying it for anyone who asked. The cookies — with frosting faces, buttons, mittens, and socks expertly piped in perfect curlicues, zigzags, and buttons — were her holiday calling card, layered with wax paper and packed into tins and gift boxes.
Sometimes family rituals die off slowly. Kids grow up, move out, start their own families, and pick up new traditions that don’t leave room for the old. Parents get older and don’t have the energy to deck the house out in thousands of lights anymore. But sometimes rituals end abruptly. That’s what happened to us. My mother died of cancer about a month after Christmas, right after my 16th birthday. My brother and I went to live with a family friend and his children (our alcoholic father having been rightly deemed unable to care for us), and our little family’s Christmas traditions were no more.
Not that I didn’t try to keep them up. For the next 20 years or so, through living with our uncomfortably blended family, moving into my first apartment on my college campus, and in a series of apartments as a young adult, I was committed to making those cookies every year. I religiously followed my mother’s recipe, dutifully measuring out endless cups of flour, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. I put plates of them out at holiday parties I hosted, brought them as hostess gifts, gave them away to friends, offered them at office holiday potlucks.
And every year I was disappointed. No one seemed to appreciate or enjoy the cookies like I wanted them to. Of course they wouldn’t — for them they were just a holiday treat, not a symbol of a bittersweet memory and a tragic lost childhood. I vividly remember a former boss taking a bite and offering “Great gingerbread!” in a tone of exaggerated enthusiasm, which made me cringe. Was my neediness that obvious?
Even to me, the gingerbread men didn’t seem to taste as good as in my memory. And I had to admit that I found making them boring and annoying. I resented the time it took to shop for the ingredients, mix the dough, roll it out, cut out the cookies, bake the cookies, and frost them, one by one. I got irritated when the cut-out shapes stuck to the cutting board, and I hated cleaning flour and hardened dough off the countertop.
Most significantly, instead of being a comfort, making the cookies only reminded me of everything I had lost. The ritual rang hollow because I was desperately trying to make my holidays into something they weren’t — a facsimile of the lives my peers had, in which they returned to homes with childhood rooms still festooned with posters and stuffed animals, family photos hung on the wall, and parents who made them cocoa and asked what time they should expect them back from the bar, so they didn’t have to worry.
So instead, several years ago, I decided to make gingerbread cake, using a recipe I found on the web. It was much less labor-intensive than the cookies, and in my opinion, more delicious — moist and spicy, ultra-decadent adorned with whipped cream or spread with sweet butter. I started bringing them to family gatherings and parties, and slowly the cake became my own signature and eagerly anticipated treat. One year, distracted while doubling the recipe, I made a mistake with the ratio of wet ingredients to dry, but the luscious result was even better than the original — my own inadvertent modification.
Isn’t that what happens to a lot of holiday food traditions, in a time when family members often scatter far from home and more people live on their own? We adapt them to our own tastes and requirements, giving in to the realities of limited free time and the difficulty of tracking down particular ingredients in the part of the world where we end up. I figured that even with my fairly radical reworking, I was still keeping up the heart of my family ritual — baking something I enjoy and offering it with love and gratitude.
Christmas will always remind me of loss — the loss of my mother, the life we had, and the life I thought I was going to have. I still get a live tree every year, just like we did when I was growing up, and I tear up as I unwrap the oldest ornaments, remembering the stories behind them. And yet I am compelled to have a tree and make the gingerbread, year after year. Because traditions and rituals not only connect us to the past, they also link us to the future, setting the stage for a time when we’ll be remembered in a bite of spicy cake, the swirl of an icing flourish, or the snap of a cookie.