By Thanksgiving weekend, the prep work was well underway. All year long she'd been saving the boxes from stationery and from her nylon stockings, stashed with the Christmas ornaments. She'd made lists in her perfectly inscrutable handwriting. In our basement refrigerator, she had squirreled away some of the raspberry jam she made during the summer.
So every fall, when my mom told us that she'd grown tired of the whole idea of Christmas cookies and was giving them up, she didn't mean it. We were never sure, though. And we'd whine on cue, begging her to please at least make the kind we just couldn't live without -- for me, the Russian tea cakes, for my brother, the spice cookies called pepparkakor.
But most of her work went on in secret, while we were at school or after we'd gone to bed.
And by Christmas Eve, we'd have maybe 100 dozen cookies, as many as 20 varieties of exquisite, painstakingly formed cookies, stored in our freezer.
As a small child, bringing out box after box of cookies that morning was kind of a miracle. Not quite as wonderful as Santa, who would get a plate of them that night, but part of the blur of a holiday full of magic and surprise.
Later, when I was a teenager, I knew they were there, noticed the boxes piling up, even poked my way inside a few boxes, though never daring to take any. (Don't misunderstand; I got in plenty of teenage trouble, but that was a line I didn't cross.)
Lots and lots of mothers bake Christmas cookies, I know. Actually, I know that now. When I was a child, I used to think my mother was the only one. But the truth is, I'm a lot older and a bit more worldly, and I know still that no one made more beautiful or more delicious Christmas cookies.
Russian tea cakes may be everywhere, but they were never more perfect. You can buy frosted butter cookies even at the supermarket, but my mother's were a delicate one-sixteenth of an inch thick, the icing just a glaze, the decorations minimal, angelic almost.
She never made any of those cookies the rest of the year.
I don't know how or why she started baking them; it never occurred to me to ask. As far as I know, her mother didn't make them; she wasn't the type for delicate anyway.
But I know why they were perfect: My mom was a college-educated housewife who in another time might have been a naturalist or a historian. So when she took on a project -- growing African violets or studying the Civil War era or making Christmas cookies -- she conquered it every bit as ambitiously as other people climbed career ladders.
Ann MacVean's Christmas cookies were anticipated not just by the MacVean children, but by anyone in Middletown, N.Y., lucky enough to get them.
My younger sister, Kathryn, remembers someone saying, "It wasn't Christmas until the MacVeans put up the soldiers [part of my father's holiday decorations] and you got their cookies!"
On cookie duty
Early on Christmas Eve morning, we kids would be sent to the basement to carry up the many boxes of cookies. We were supposed to make sure we'd included every kind, and my mother would sometimes forget how many varieties she'd made. There were the standards: butter cookies, Russian tea cakes, little nut sandwich cookies, nutmeg logs, shortbread colored and decorated to look like slices of lemon or orange, chocolate heart-shaped cookies. And every year some new ones.
We were on duty all morning -- no matter that it was school vacation, or that it might have snowed. We were expected in the kitchen, hands washed, ready to decorate the butter cookies and the pepparkakor.
Whatever was she thinking? We made an unholy mess every year, not to mention all the cookies that "accidentally" broke so we'd have to eat them, and the icing glaze that had to be made over and over when we spilled colored sugars into the bowls. Or the battles we'd have over which of us (always my brothers -- certainly never me!) was making ugly cookies that would bring shame to us all if they went onto gift trays.
"Remember those horrible silver balls we used as decorations?" my sister asked.
Yes, I do. And I remember the "red hot" cinnamon candies. And mom chiding us for not following her example of the slightest of sprinkling of sugars, just enough to suggest color. These were tiny cookies, with a style the polar opposite of those $4 decorator cookies sold today.
My brothers, Mac and Jamie, would revel in hideous cookies, mixing sugar to make a grayish purple, piling on every sort of fancy candies. Jamie once got Mom to bake a large butter cookie to look like a guy carrying a boom box on his shoulder. My sister and I were horrified that that cookie was preserved and became a tree ornament -- but learned that humor and joy sometimes mattered more than Mom's exacting baking standards.
Once the dozens and dozens of decorated cookies had been placed on racks to dry, our next job began.