It’s cold now, here on San Juan Island. Snow is a possibility every morning, and frost is a certainty. The trees are bare, but we bundle up in layer upon layer of coats and sweaters.
And the days are so short. The sun comes up, far in the south, long after breakfast, and it sets long before dinner. This is the time of year when many cultures have celebrations to drive away the dark—Christmas, with all its lights and its star; Hanukkah, the festival of lights; Kwanzaa; Santa Lucia; midwinter festivals in several cultures; and many others throughout history.
Many homeowners on the island put up Christmas lights, of course, doubly welcome outside the town limits, where there are no streetlights.
There are decorations, too. I have a tiny model village I put on the mantel for Christmas, and it usually stays for most of the winter. The merchants of Friday Harbor help drive away the dark with a competition to decorate their shop fronts.
On December 5, we celebrate St. Nicholas Eve with molded cookies in the shape of the saint with his horse or donkey—some cookie molds show one, some the other. The story of St. Nicholas is not well-known, but he was a real person who performed great acts of generosity and kindness.
It was St. Nicholas cookies that originally sparked my own interest in molded cookies. My husband, Aaron Shepard, is a children’s author, and his children’s storybook The Baker’s Dozen is about a baker who learns a lesson of generosity from St. Nicholas himself.
Near the end of December is the winter solstice, that turning point that tells us that the sun is coming back, even as we see only cold and darkness.
The month ends, of course, with its cornucopia of Christmas cookies! These include almost every secular and religious motif you could think of, from jolly snowmen to medieval manger scenes. Baking cookies for family and friends is a special holiday joy, and in the spirit of St. Nicholas, let’s bake some to give away as well.
For this month, I feature both traditional and new recipes to bake and share.