Christmas cookies

Photo by Jane Brown.


By Jane D. Brown

I think of my Mom as I consult the spattered page of her sugar cookie recipe. It feels like she is standing next to me in her Christmas apron tied around her waist ready to help. I smile at the thought and then realize it was 51 years ago on this date that she died. Since then, I make these cookies every year, remembering the fun we always had making them together.

I add the distinctive nutmeg and grated lemon rind that make her sugar cookies special. I even use Crisco for the shortening because she wrote a note in the margin: “butter makes too sticky.”

I try to roll the dough as thin as she could, so thin the dough board underneath begins to show through. Some folks like their sugar cookies thicker and softer to decorate with icing, but we like ours thin and crunchy with lots of colorful sprinkles.

I use the same cookie cutters my sister, brother and I used all those years ago. I remember us standing at the kitchen table poised with our favorite star, Christmas tree or candy cane cutter waiting for Mom to get the dough rolled out. These cookie cutters are the old-fashioned kind made with real metal and sharp edges, not today’s red or green plastic ones. We’d make only a few reindeer because all those legs and antlers are too hard to get from the rolling surface to the baking sheet.

Poppy and Darby Protzman making cookies. Photo by Jane Brown.

For many years two friends joined me in early December in a marathon Christmas cookie baking day. We each brought our own utensils and ingredients for our two favorite cookie recipes. I wore Mom’s special apron until it was threadbare and then we each got our own red and green chef aprons.

It was a little tricky to figure out who got to put her trays in the oven when and at what temperature, but it always worked out. While someone was waiting for her cookies to bake, she helped put the chocolate kisses on the peanut butter blossoms, or chopped black walnuts for the holiday nuggets.

Zeke coveting cookies. Photo by Jane Brown.

Our daughter helped as soon as she was big enough to shake sprinkles and now our grandchildren help, too. They all love the dough as much as the finished cookies and sprinkles  fly everywhere. It’s a marvelous mess.

At the end of the day, our dining room table is covered with dozens of delicious cookies. Then we each get to fill our cookie tins with an array of stunning yummies. My friend Marcy used to send one of her tins to her adult son on the West Coast, but he now prefers something not quite as dangerous for the waistline.

I put an assortment in our Christmas cookie jar, and am amazed by how often that needs refilling. I suspect my husband has decided cookies are an important food group this time of year.

A friend gave me the Moosewood Cookbook years ago as I was setting up my first kitchen. He wrote on the inside cover: “In our kitchens we not only make meals, we make love and celebrate life, the life within us and around us.” For me, that’s what making all these cookies is – a celebration of those warm moments in my past, the fun of making new memories with friends and family.

I hope you have the pleasure of delicious warmth as you celebrate this season with those you love and those you remember. 

Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.

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115 Comments on "Christmas cookies"

  1. Not that I wouldn’t keep up the tradition, but I found a note in with the old cookie cutters from mom that said, “now you’ll need to make the sugar cookies”.

    And I do. I ship them out every year. Diets be damned!

  2. I believe our Mom’s used the same recipe cards. I actually framed her Italian Cookie recipes for sentimental reasons but still use them every Christmas..Have A Happy!!

  3. Aww, what a sweet memory and story to share. I grew up in y grandma Sara’s yellow retro kitchen and she always cooked cakes and cookies weekly. Christmas time was super special and she started teaching me at an early age ! I made two Momma Soul Kitchen cookbooks including a Just Desserts, Child as well in her honor and a You Tube, Facebook , IG and Tik Tok channel in her honor. I have so many recipes written from her as well. Your cookies brings back so many memories of these special cookies. I pulled out grandma’s recipe and hers was similar except she added almond extract to her dough. Year we have her original steel cookie cutters too. Stars, circle, Santa boot and tree! Happy holidays to you and your family. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for sharing your recipes and memories, too. I’ve thought almond extract would be good in these. Will try next time. Happy Holidays!

  4. Great story, brought back many memories from my own childhood cookie making (flour throwing) memories with my Sisters..sniff, sniff

  5. Correction: So Sorry, I should have worn my glasses before … corrected my sent response above.
    Aww, what a sweet memory and story to share. I grew up in my grandma Sara’s yellow retro kitchen and she always cooked cakes and cookies weekly. Christmas time was super special and she started teaching me at an early age ! I made two Momma Soul Kitchen cookbooks including a Just Desserts, Child as well in her honor and a You Tube, Facebook , IG and Tik Tok channel in her honor. I have so many recipes written from her as well. Your cookies brings back so many memories of these special cookies. I pulled out grandma’s recipe and hers was similar except she added almond extract to her dough..
    Yes, we have her original steel cookie cutters too. Stars, circle, Santa boot and tree! Happy holidays to you and your family. Thank you for sharing

  6. Love your article miss my Mom too. There is definitely food I make that sings hot name. Would love yo get that recipe I never perfected mine. Happy holidays and memories

    • I hope you can read the recipe that is in the picture at the top of the column. If not, happy to send it to you. enjoy!

  7. Thank you Jane for sharing your fond memories of your mother. My mother has been gone now for 25 years, this has brought up also some cherished memories. I will plan on using your mothers recipe
    My mother also used Cisco oil in her cookies.God bless Sandy

    • I hope this recipe works for you. One tip: the dough tends to be sticky, so the colder you can keep the dough, the better. I first put it in the freezer overnight and then into the frig. when I begin to roll them out. Enjoy!

  8. Leslie A Moore USA RET | December 14, 2023 at 8:23 am | Reply

    I too remember baking at Christmas with my Mom and Grama I continued even when I was in the Army and civil service everyone looked forward to the cookies and special family pastries.

  9. Colleen Raveill | December 14, 2023 at 8:43 am | Reply

    My folks owned and operated a neighborhood bakery for 36 years. It is my tradition to make cookies in my own kitchen for Christmas now. Your beautiful article summed up exactly why I mad 109 dozen cookies, that are ready for distribution. Thank you. Merry Christmas to you.🎄

  10. Beautiful article. Made me smile and cry.

  11. Thank you for sharing this beautiful recipe.

  12. Thank you for sharing your memories. I swear I can the smell those sugar cookies.

  13. Sweet and lovely article on Christmas cookie making and the warm memories also created through the years. I love Christmas cookies but my dear grandmother did all the baking of those while she still could. While Linzer Tarte cookies became a favorite of mine after later being introduced to European style cookies, the old-fashioned, thin and crispy sugar cookies with lots of holiday sugar sprinkles described in the article are still one of my long-time favorites. Not only at Christmas but at Easter too, with bunny and egg shapes and pastel sugar sprinkles. Surprised that it did not, but the article would have been even sweeter, had it also included the recipe for the sugar cookies!

    • We do them for Valentine’s, too. Easter is a good idea, too! The recipe is that tattered photograph at the beginning of the column. If you can’t read it, I’ll be happy to retype it for you. Enjoy!!

  14. Patricia Meelberg | December 14, 2023 at 10:04 am | Reply

    Sweet, sweet memories. Parts of that story are also my own. Merry Christmas!

  15. Dear Jane,
    Thank you so much for such a beautiful story, full of love and gentle Christmas memories.
    I live in Australia and could have written your lovely story myself, as it too, applies to me.
    Luckily I still have my Mum, but Christmas, (and recipes in particular,) all remind me of the beautiful people who have come before. Although missing from our table and our lives, they continue to influence what we do, what we eat and add to the love we feel for each other at Christmas time. Even today I avoid making too many of those pesky reindeer shaped cookies for EXACTLY the same reason you did.
    Your lovely story blessed me and bought back many wonderful memories. Kind regards
    Andy Applebee.
    South Australia.

  16. Thank you for such a simple, thoughtful and warm picture of your memories. A beautiful relief from the frenzy of the holidays.

  17. My mother had these exact recipes. I have a full container of them. We use them all the time for as long as I can remember and I’m 58 now, and I still use those recipes ..

  18. Patricia D Welch | December 14, 2023 at 10:28 am | Reply

    I just finished making cookies and one was my mother’s from the 50 another from a dear aunt and others I have picked up. My granddaughters are now learning how to make them. And last night sprinkles and frosting were all over. It was a joy. Thank you for your memories. Mine are similar

  19. Beautifully written! I lost my mom 33 years ago & still bake with some of her utensil, makes me feel like she’s here with me.
    Thank you for sharing ❤️

  20. I also have my mom’s splattered pages of recipes. When using her recipes is when I feel the closest to her. Many years ago when she passed family members would ask for various items of hers. I wanted her cookbook. She loved to cook and bake for others to make them happy and this is what I cherish the most,

  21. I also enjoyed learning hiw to bake cook chur butter. With my grandmother. While teaching me measurements and math and time. My sister and i loved it. We bajed bread from scratch and chur butter. It was so much fun. The love and laughter and mess. It was always fun. We even learned about gardening. I miss my grandma. My mom was always working but she loved what we brought home for her to eat. Love them both. They are in heaven now.

  22. Are there no eggs in the recipe? I would love making them 💞

  23. Thank you for that cookie recipe….its awesome.

  24. Awwww…..Such Sweet Memories !!!!! I Miss my Mom TOO !!!!! We always had Such Fun Baking Cookies and Quick Breads at the Holidays !!!! I feel her presence when I use her Rolling Pin, Measuring Cups and Cookie Cutters….

  25. A beautiful story and memory of your Mom..

  26. Carmen Broderick | December 14, 2023 at 12:49 pm | Reply

    Beautifully written…
    The tsp is that baking soda?
    I love a good Christmas cookie… Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  27. I enjoyed your story. It brought back happy memories of my Mom making cookies for Christmas. She’s been gone for 46 years. I have the recipe she used. They are the best sugar cookies! Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

  28. Zulma Himpelmann habló | December 14, 2023 at 1:21 pm | Reply

    I feel exactly the same asyou. We were honoring my mother in laws German tradition until a couple of years ago. Kind of sad , but Noti understood. This Saturday I get a cookie day with one of my younger nieces who decided to do it. I am so excited! I can’t eat cookies, just taste them, but love to make them for everyone.

  29. My recipe is stained and torn. It is written in hungarian by Grandma, with Mom’s notes in English. Soldier pockets. My ❤️

  30. Suzanne Hearring | December 14, 2023 at 1:27 pm | Reply

    Love this article. Memory Lane.

  31. Jeanne Crownover | December 14, 2023 at 1:48 pm | Reply

    Wow! The article brought back memories. What drew me to the article was the hand written recipe. I have those, although only a few are still used. My favorite cookie recipes, however, are from 1948 edition of holiday foods put out by the Milwaukee Gas Light Company and the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. Both books showing how much they were used over the years, starting when I was a young child.

  32. So beautiful! I have some old handwritten recipes too from my mother and nanny and just seeing their distinctive handwriting brings happiness and tears at the same time. Merry Christmas to you!

  33. I will make these for our Christmas dinner They shorting instead of butter.

  34. Tears streaming down my cheeks now. Reading your story brought so many warm memories to my heart. I lost my mom this year so the memories were already ever present. I lost my sister 43 years ago. Every year the three of us always made mom’s sugar cookies, (also using Crisco). I made my cookies today, alone, but they are always in my heart. Thank you for the story, Merry Christmas!

  35. frederick terry | December 14, 2023 at 3:36 pm | Reply

    Wonderful tribute. One worries that these traditions are dying rapidly. Sad. Thank’s so much for rekindling wonderful memories

  36. I have my grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe. I used to have a friend roll the cookies and I would do the oven now she makes my grandmother’s cookies and loves them nothing like passing down a old receipe

  37. Lori Dawn Weaver | December 14, 2023 at 4:08 pm | Reply

    I loved your article. Cookie making during the holidays always brings cherished memories and your article helped me remember some I’d forgotten.

  38. I love this .my family did this also. We had a TV on the old metal cart and would pull it to the kitchen with all the old time favorite half hour Christmas shows while we baked and decorated our cookies…best memories..I did the same with my children…but they no longer carry on the traditions😪

  39. This is so beautiful! I just cried reading as it reminded me of wonderful memories with my mom! I made her special cookies yesterday and teared up as I read her handwriting. Along with the recipe my mom wrote that baking together was the highlight of Christmas for her!! Thanks for sharing and keep baking, I will with my family ! Xoxo

  40. Thank you for sharing your treasured recipe-(which I will definitely try!), and your precious memories connected to the recipe!

  41. Thank you for this wonderful memory! I am much older and unable to bake or cook by myself any longer that does not involve a microwave. I have a part-time caregiver that is also very busy. Please continue to treasure all of these old and new experiences with your children and grandchildren. Sometimes, that’s what you have left.

  42. Such a lovely nostalgic story,and my recipes look just as spattered. My favorites are the ones in my mother’s handwriting. You
    must have lost your mom
    young;I do believe they’re by our side when we remember
    them this deeply.

    • I was 22 when Mom died. It was Christmas time so we made these cookies to help console ourselves. We thought she would approve.

  43. Elizabeth Little | December 14, 2023 at 6:23 pm | Reply

    Hello, your post brought tears to my eyes, and brought back warm memories of love and making Mom’s cream cheese cut outside (also made with Crisco. And yes, I still use those old cookie cutters. Were they made of aluminum ?
    Anyway, thank you for the memories

  44. Karol Shellenbarger | December 14, 2023 at 6:41 pm | Reply

    Dear Jane, that is the same recipe that my mother used. Even the cookie cutters are the same. It warmed my heart reading your article. Those were the good days and I have passed that on to my granddaughters who love making sugar cookies. Thank you!

  45. Georgia Flournoy | December 14, 2023 at 6:51 pm | Reply

    This is the same exact recipe I have and the hand writing. Even looks the same! These are the best sugar cookies.

  46. Sheryl selvaggio | December 14, 2023 at 8:22 pm | Reply

    I had saved all my mom’s recipes in a baggie. I was going to type them up neatly and put them in a folder but in my moves and some hardships my storage unit that i couldn’t pay for sot sold and i lost her quilts jewelery and several valuables but I’m most sad that I lost thoes stained cruddy looking recipes!

  47. Good evening! My daughter does not like sugar cookies…probably because of thickness. I am so happy to see your dear Mom made them thin.

    Want to try this, but wondering if 4 teaspoons of nutmeg is too much. Please let me know. Also, when do you add the sprinkles?

    Great article. Thank you for sharing.

    • She might like them better thinner. Yup, it is 4 teaspoons of nutmeg!
      We put the sprinkles on before we bake them. Sometimes I use an egg white wash to help the round ones stay on better. Hope your daughter loves these!

  48. I laughed at the thin with sprinkles comment. I like sprinkles before being baked & no frosting but my sister likes them thick with frosting. Nothing says Holiday time like sugar cookies! Merry Christmas! 🎄

  49. Your story brought back a lot of wonderful memories! Thank you!

  50. I loved your story ❤️ it made me smile all the way through

  51. Thank you for sharing your Mom recipe I will try it enjoy your family and Merry Christmas to you and your. Blessings

  52. I enjoyed your story about baking sugar cookies with your Mom. My Mom also made these cookies but didn’t leave the recipe. Would you send the full recipe to me please 🙏

    • That is the full recipe at the beginning of this column. I hope you can read it. If not, since others have asked, I’ll retype it here. I do it all in a stand mixer.

      Cream 1 cup shortening (Crisco recommended because butter makes too sticky)
      with 2 cups white sugar.

      Mix in 4 beaten eggs and
      1 tsp. grated lemon rind

      In separate bowl whisk:
      1 tsp. salt
      1 tsp. baking soda
      4 tsp. nutmeg (yes, it is 4 teaspoons!)
      4 cups flour

      Gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix well.

      Chill for an hour (I divide the dough into 2-3 sections and wrap in plastic and put in freezer for at least an hour before rolling out one dough piece at a time, keeping the others cold in the refrigerator).

      Roll thin and cut into shapes. Add sprinkles before baking.

      Bake for 8 minutes at 400 degrees.


  53. That was a wonderful column and brought back many memories of cookie making with my children and grandchildren. Thank you for sharing the sugar cookie recipe it was the same one I used for years and somewhere along the way it was lost. I plan on making a batch this weekend!!

  54. Jane Brown, I like my cookies thicker. Does your Mother’s recipe work okay for a thicker cookie? Thank you for sharing the recipe and the tip about why to use Crisco.

  55. This year I baked my Mother’s peanut butter cookies and her fruitcake. There was something magical and soothing in the doing while I held her close in my mind and heart.

  56. Making those cookies with her mother reminds me of the joy I had doing the same thing. I had a different recipe, but I still smell the cookies and every year I stand there and remember mom! I’m 73 now and the cookies will be baked and I will remember how much I loved my mother.

  57. Interesting recipe cannot wait to try it with my granddaughter this next week as we bake our Christmas cookies for gifts for the family.

  58. Will you please print out the recipe for me. I can’t see it well enough and I do not want to make a mistake on the ingredients. I have never had luck making sugar cookies and I really want to try these. Thank you so much!

  59. I have cookie recipies that are in the same shape as yours. I also haven’t heard same metal cookie cutters. Grey were grandma’s originally and then my Mom’s whose been gone for 40 yrs. You are so right about the reindeer. His legs would fall off or burn. I still make the cookies because it also makes me feel like Mom is there with me. Your article touched close to home.

  60. I have this same recipe! From my Grandmother. I call them Houston cookies. My grandmother made them every time we visited. She could roll them so thin. Ours were always a little pilgrim. I suspect that was the only little cookie cutter that she had. I can put one of these cookies in my mouth and instantly be transported back 50 years. I can hear her and my mom laughing.

  61. Omg I thought someone photoelectric my shortbread recipe. Mine is also covered in cooking marks. Best memories ever

  62. Stevie Youngblood | December 15, 2023 at 8:26 am | Reply

    Thank you for bringing back heart felt memories with your article. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  63. Oh I remember these days as if it was yesterday.I must have the same cookie cutters because those reindeer legs did come off so easy.I always wanted to do Santa he was bigger than the
    others.Lol Thank you for bringing
    back such loving memories.

  64. This brought tears to my eyes making me remember my good times making Christmas cookies with my grandmother back in the early ‘60’s.

  65. I love your story. My Mother passed 11 years ago today. Those memories ring like magic. Thanks for sharing! I swore that was my handwriting of my own mother’s recipe. Bless you

  66. A Yvonne Mendenhall | December 15, 2023 at 11:56 am | Reply

    I have cookie recipes that look just like the one pictured. We must have the same baking history…I think I’ve made ALL of the recipes in your article through the years.

  67. Why wasn’t the recipe shared??? I’d like to try these.

    • It is in the photo at the top of the column. I’ve also retyped it in a reply up above. Hope that will work for you.

  68. Crystal Russell | December 15, 2023 at 2:32 pm | Reply

    I am looking for an old recipe that I had from my mother, and before that her mother and my great grandma. It was Vanilla Drop Cookies. And the reason was because they were “drop” cookies.You made a cookie batter and used two spoons to spoon it on to the baking trays. Then you sprinkle with sugar and bake. They melt down and are slightly golden with the sugar melted into the surface. They are much better the the thick dough of the sugar cookie. I can still remember the smell. I remember the ingredients but not the ratio.

  69. Holly Anne Villella | December 15, 2023 at 7:08 pm | Reply

    Thanks for the lovely story about baking Christmas cookies with your Mom! The year I was expecting my husband’s and my first child, my Mom and I together baked 57 doz different kinds of traditional cookies. We outdid ourselves with excitement of Christmas and expecting a child/grandchild. We baked and frosted Italian knots, buckeyes, chocolate crinkles, lemon bars, sugar cut-outs, cherry snowballs, pizzelles, thumbprints, apricot-filled, oatmeal raisin. My husband and I lived on the 2nd floor 1.5 bedroom flat my mother and I had purchased together years before. Mom lived downstairs. From our cozy kitchen windows I could see snow falling in big fluffy flakes on all the rooftops of the neighborhood homes. Christmas lights twinkled on our tree and down the street in yard displays. Carols played on the radio. I had not enjoyed cooking or baking as a teen and young woman. But now that I was married and expecting a child,I wanted to bake Christmas treats as well as my Mom did when I was little. I knew to remember everything about that time together with Mom because I knew someday I would not have her company and friendship. And we tasted one of each kind of cookie and made a fresh pot of coffee and laughed about everything. That special Christmas is a treasure I cherish every year.

  70. Tiffany M Langton | December 16, 2023 at 12:13 am | Reply

    Ms. Brown,
    My name is Tiffany and I ran across this article after looking up some old recipes and noticing after my mother’s now had 2 strokes that some of the recipes have never been written down by her but we’re just made from memory after learning from my grandmother, and I wanted to say thank you for printing this picture as I will be using this recipe with the notes on the side and stains from the many times this was or must have been used. This said to me how much it must have been used and loved by the people you’ve made them for. And so thank you for helping me to make more family traditions for my family with the recipe for these and the ones I’ll be teaching my daughter whose moved out on her own and never learned during her childhood how to do them as well as my son. When they were little I always made the dough and let the kids decorate and eat them, but the dough was too much to chance on 2 helpers and 1 parent.😉 As a single (at the time) mom was easier for me to manage the mixing and measuring and let them have the fun. But this year my 18 yr old girl, and my son whose 23 and also out on his own are coming home to bake chocolate star cookies, monster cookies, oatmeal, gingerbread ppl and sugar cookies cut with my great-great grandmas cookie cutters, given to me from my mom and grandmother when my kids were little.
    So thanks to your recipe we will be passing on a family tradition that has been in 5 generations and now 6. After all of the years I’ve done this with my grandmother and mother and kids it’s been the last three years that have not been the same so this year is is coming together like old times and brings me the finest times and great memories of my life spent with the people I love that made me happy to see you are nostalgic just like I am with the memories that you shared in your story of family and friends when you bake cookies as well I just wanted to say Merry Christmas to a fellow foodie and happy baking may your cookies always turn out chewy or in your case crispy and soft in your case crunchy may your cake’s always rise 😁❤️!
    But I wanted to tell you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family from me and mine.

  71. 6 generations!! Love that you’ll be back together to make all these yummies again. Enjoy, enjoy!

  72. I’m making these today to chill and make with my adult daughters tomorrow. I even bought Crisco for the first time in years!!! Mom’s recipe always called for nutmeg, so that caught my eye! Thank you for this!

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