It’s still dark in Connecticut when I wake up every year in a room that isn’t my own. The heater is still on because inevitably, I forget to hit the kill switch before passing out sometime between the last sip of my bourbon nightcap and the final pages of my red-leather copy of A Christmas Carol. I hold onto those last moments of the night for myself. After we’ve cleaned up and said our season’s greetings, I steal one last gulp from a bottle of whatever’s handy and have a seat beside the tree.
The Eve celebration has changed over the years. Crave tradition as I may, it’s a tough thing to hold onto as my family has lost some of our aging generation. Each year, we morph and consolidate, trying to address a satellite family’s need for relief or support.
As a result, Christmas Eve meals have been inconsistent as well (though always delicious). Some years called for appetizers and cocktails, others a sit-down dinner for a smaller crowd. We’ve gone between the home-cooked and labor-intensive, to some classic catered fare. We’ve adapted menus based on needs unique to hosts and homes, serving what’s most agreeable for the moment.
But with all the natural churn of those night befores, there has been constancy come morning time. When I shake off the deep whiskey sleep, warm in my Mickey Mouse Santa hat, and head downstairs, I know I will find the following: percolating coffee set out with a selection of milk and creamers; a veritable buffet of egg nog that I could have never known existed (pumpkin, non-dairy, and of course, the classic from Connecticut’s own Stew Leonard’s farm store); an assortment of leftover goodies from the night before, which often includes the chocolate dipped pretzel sticks my sister is fond of making; my mom’s famous and magical pumpkin bread; and a bottle of prosecco in the center of the table with flutes my mother has had for God knows how long.
But most importantly, cookies. Not just a few cookies. Not just one kind. I’m talking a mountain of them, which my mom accumulates in the days leading up to the holiday, some gifted from friends or neighbors, contributed by cousins or co-workers. Bless her perfect heart, she protects this collection from guests and well-wishers and other company so that we have an impressive array on Christmas morning.
It’s always a motley mix, with guest appearances often made by holiday M&M cookies to which my niece has taken a liking, flat and pretty pizzelles, tree-shaped butter spritzes, eggnog snickerdoodles, or chewy almond lace. But without fail, the headliners are there: peanut butter blossoms, something I like to call “The Cookie with a Thousand Names” (you may refer to these as Mexican or Italian wedding cookies, snowballs, Russian tea cakes, butterballs…), and always a classic ginger molasses number that a family friend of Icelandic heritage has passed on to our family.
Growing up, my mom was always pragmatic about what us kids ate. As a registered nurse she took nutrition seriously—and as an adult, I’m grateful for that. But one morning a year, it is entirely excusable, and in fact encouraged, that we skip the protein-packed scrambled eggs and greek yogurt with fresh berries, and head straight for sweets. It’s a tradition my disciplined mother observes right along with us and marks one of my favorite moments of the entire year. I pour myself a selection of beverages and palm as many cookies as I can carry.