As the darkest part of winter approaches in our corner of the Northwest, folks hunker down against the chilly rain and hope for a few days of snow to get in the holiday mood.
People bring greenery inside, decorate their homes in festive colors and gather with friends and family. It's a universal celebration, a spirit that transcends the Christmas story.
For world traveler Kathleen Bander of Bellingham, Christmas has been a moveable feast. She embraces its deep cultural meanings and relishes its simplicity, rejecting the commercialism in favor of creating personal holiday traditions.
So does Kristin Edwards, also of Bellingham, who revels in the sheer joy of the season.
You'll find both women whirling around their kitchens this time of year, their homes rich with the aroma of freshly baked cookies. It's a smell that practically defines the holidays.
"Everyone loves Christmas," Bander says. "It's celebrating the completion of a year and the good company of friends."
Bander, 64, moved to a home near Smith and Noon roads about four years ago after a Peace Corps stint with her husband in Western Samoa. Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, she has lived in Seattle and on Camano Island. As a child, she lived in many countries overseas where her father taught English and drama.
Despite being away from home, her parents "kept the traditions as much as they could," Bander says.
"When I was a kid, my mother emphasized doing things at home," she says. "We always made all of our presents. That, for me, is the best gift that you can give someone - something that you have made yourself and that you know they will use and enjoy."
This year, she plans to get together with friends and make flavored vinegars and mustards.
"It's fun," she says. "(Christmas) doesn't have to be the stressful time of year that people think it is."
What Bander likes most about her Christmas sugar cookies is that the dough can be made in stages, and the decorations can be as simple or as complex as you want. Her recipe is particularly well-suited for family baking.
"Kids love to bake, and they can!" she says. "Even the littlest kids can bake; they can eat the result of their effort."
Edwards' favorite Christmas cookie is the traditional snickerdoodle - sugary and buttery and heady with cinnamon and nostalgia. It's a recipe she learned from her aunt years ago while growing up in Southern California.
"They're familiar and cozy and yummy and they don't take too long to make," Edwards says. "My aunt loved these and we used to make them when I was little. They remind me of her."
Edwards, 43, who works in the deli at Community Food Co-op, moved to Bellingham 11 years ago. She and her husband live in the Columbia neighborhood, where the bustle of her holiday kitchen is testament both to her aunt and her grandmother, women who inspired her love of baking.
"My sisters claim I got the baking gene from those two," she says. "Sometimes I give (cookies) away as gifts. I like to make the things my friends like. It's amazing how much people like that.
"I have a lot going on, but I always find time to make Christmas."
RICH, ROLLED, CUT-OUT CHRISTMAS COOKIES
The dough can be made and kept in the refrigerator for two weeks, or frozen for a month. You'll want the dough chilled when you roll and cut it out. Keep your cookie-making simple by doing it in three parts:
Make the cookie dough.
Roll out the dough and bake the cookies; refrigerate short-term or freeze the cookies for several weeks.
Decorate the cookies. Done in stages, it will hardly seem like work.
1/2 cup white or brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream the sugar with the butter. Beat in the vanilla, eggs, flour, baking powder and salt.
Chill the dough four hours before rolling.
Roll out, using as little extra flour as you can (it toughens the dough.) Cut out with cookie cutters; make the shapes close together. Gather trimmings and roll out another time or two. Use up all of the dough.
With a spatula, transfer cut-outs to a greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 8 minutes, or until slightly browned.
- Recipe courtesy of Kathleen Bander
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup softened butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Beat sugar and butter until smooth. Add salt and vanilla and beat until smooth.
If the frosting is too thin, add more confectioners' sugar; if it's too thick, add a little milk.
Notes: Divide the frosting into small bowls and add food colorings. Keep some of it white to frost the cookies before applying colored decoration. You can decorate with frosting, sprinkles, etc.
If working with kids, fill two pastry tubes with each color; it makes it easier for them to use. Explain that the color isn't supposed to cover the cookie, but be a decoration.
AUNT NANCY'S SNICKERDOODLES
1/2 cup butter (softened)
1/2 cup shortening (melted)
11/2 cups sugar
23/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix butter, shortening, sugar and eggs. Blend in flour, soda, salt and cream of tartar.
Shape dough into balls.
Mix sugar and cinnamon. Roll balls in it.
Bake 8-10 minutes on a greased cookie sheet.
- Recipe courtesy of Kristin Edwards
ROBERT MITTENDORF is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Reach him at 360-756-2805 or at email@example.com.