Thanksgiving being later this year, the whole holiday season has seemed to just suddenly appear out of nowhere! It hit me yesterday – attending first Sunday of advent services and coming home to open the inaugural box on that Advent calendar that has been sitting on my counter for weeks calling to me – that it’s time to break out the holiday cards and start baking and planning menus and decorations and renewing all the wonderful family traditions that this season brings. If I close my eyes, I can smell the spice-laden kitchen and the welcome heat of the oven that receives a continually rotating array of goods for baking.
Cookies are my specialty – I generally make anywhere from sixteen to twenty different varieties every year at this time, and I have a tradition for that as well. I pore over my recipe files and books for a week or two, picking out the family favorites that simply must be made, and finding several more new ones to try. Then I go through them all to make up a grocery list, purchase the supplies and spread them all out on my kitchen table within easy reach. The measuring cups and spoons and whisks and mixers and all the paraphernalia of baking line up on the counter ready for duty. I start on a Friday evening right after work, making up several different batches of dough that can be refrigerated for baking later. Then I rinse out the mixing bowl to start on another right away. Early on Saturday morning I am back at it, baking the previous night’s efforts while I make up more batches of dough. The extra warmth of the kitchen at this time is always welcome. And the smells – ah! the smells! Chocolate, of course. Cinnamon. Raspberry jam. Vanilla extract, and toasted almonds or hazelnuts. Coconut, and caramel and… sugar. They all merge together into a welcoming balm that brings contentment even in the bustle of activity – aromatherapy at its best!
All this activity continues straight through to Sunday evening. (Quitting time depends somewhat on how well my feet are holding out.) Whatever I have accomplished in that time is what gets made for the year. Myriad varieties of bars and drops and meringues and roll-and-slices and cut-outs. And if I have estimated well on the ingredients required, not too much remains on the kitchen table to find room for in the pantry! Instead, my dining room table and freezer are stacked with storage containers, just waiting to fill platters and gift boxes. For me, once the cookies are completed, Christmas-tide has begun!
Of course, there’s still a lot to be done, both in the kitchen and in the house. I shop for gifts throughout the year, but they must be wrapped and many of them mailed to distant family and friends in a timely manner. The house gets a good cleaning, top to bottom. More cooking and baking ensues for safekeeping in the freezer until wanted. Decorations are brought up from the basement and tucked into a corner of the dining room until they are wanted.
That’s another tradition of quite long standing in my family. Although I put a wreath on my front door after Thanksgiving, the rest of our decorating is done on Christmas eve. The anticipation of it is half the fun; gathering all the family who are home to participate supplies the rest. I hereby confess that I absolutely love a decorated Christmas tree, but I dislike the actual doing of the decorating. In my younger days, I solved that problem by hosting a tree trimming party every year. I supplied homemade dinner, dessert and “wassail”, and that was enough of an inducement to get my friends to trim the tree for me! One added bonus of this diabolically clever plan was that, although it was never required, most friends showed up with an ornament as a gift. I have the loveliest assortment of novel ornaments now as a result and each one brings warm memories of people and Christmases past. I equally cherish time spent with family readying the house for festivities. They join in even without the promise of food and drink – but of course I still do cook for them.
Cookie platters would not have been a commonplace Christmas-tide tradition in Regency England. Families then would have had their Christmas puddings and Twelfth Night cakes, among other treats. But it was traditional not to decorate a house until Christmas eve. (And the decorations all had to come down on January 6th, or the house risked bad luck.) Here is a snippet from my latest novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy, that describes the results of one Christmas eve effort at Pemberley.
“Lizzy joined in the collective expressions of delight on entering the north parlour, Mrs Reynolds and her staff having outdone themselves in the room’s dressing. Evergreen boughs draped tables and mantle, filled window ledges, edged door openings – accented here and there with ivy and mistletoe, cones and holly berries. Ribbons of velvet and striped satin intertwined among the branches of garlands to increase by their contrast the convivial setting. The room glowed softly from the flickering light of beeswax candles established at doorways and windows and in wall sconces, their flames mirrored in the polished silver sticks and candelabras and reflected, jewel-like, in crystal. The fireplace remained dark, but had been prepared and awaited only the master’s hand to set ablaze the massive log filling the hearth. But sensation redolent of yew, box, rosemary and bay, mingling with candles and warmed spiced ale, after being enclosed all the afternoon, was released upon the opening of the doors, and brought a sigh of contentment from Lizzy as she surveyed the scene.”
Christmas also would have been a time, just as it is for me every year, for gathering together family and friends, as Jane Austen herself wrote in Emma. “At Christmas every body invites their friends and thinks little of even the worst weather.”
I have shared with you a couple of my traditional activities to prepare for Christmas. I would love to hear some of yours as well. And as the primary subject of this article is cookies, I would like to know: what is your favorite Christmas cookie? Share it in a comment below, and you might win a copy of my current two-volume novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy (Volume I: Seasonal Disorder, Volume II: New Year Resolutions.)
I have one paperback set and one ebook set to giveaway. And if you visit my blog over the coming days (http://quinn-tessence.com) you may even find a few of my favorite cookie recipes there!
And if you are still looking for a perfect gift for a Jane Austen fan, or simply a holiday indulgence for yourself, you can purchase a copy of A Fitzwilliam Legacy at the below links. I have just reduced the price of the ebooks as a nod to the season. This story of a Christmas-tide gathering with Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy at Pemberley is a lovely indulgence to keep your hand from straying to the cookie platter – and it’s much less fattening, too!
Whatever your own traditions, I wish you all a joyous holiday season!
About the author
Tess Quinn is a long-time admirer of Jane Austen who became inspired to write Austen-based fiction about eight years ago. She began publishing her writing in 2011 when asked to contribute a short story to The Road to Pemberley, an anthology. Since then, she has published a book of all her own short stories, Pride Revisited; an early novel, Caroline’s Comeuppance; and recently a two-volume sequel to Pride and Prejudice entitled A Fitzwilliam Legacy. Her current work-in-progress is a novel of the Darcy family that partly includes a reimagining of the main storyline in P&P. Principles of Pride (working title) will be available in 2014.