The original Christmas story is familiar to many in the form spoken so earnestly by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He stands on the stage, next to Charlie Brown’s sad little tree, and quotes from the second chapter of Luke in the Bible.
Even now, when I hear someone tell that story using more contemporary phrasing, my mind hears Linus quoting the Bible and telling us that the shepherds weren’t just frightened by the sudden appearance of angels in the fields, they were “sore afraid.”
Beyond the original, most families have their own stories of Christmas and its traditions. They come out each year along with the boxes of stockings and ornaments.
In our family, we talk about Edward and Buzz Lightyear, or we tell the story of the time we packed up and rented a cabin in snow country where the heater didn’t work and we discovered that we’d forgotten all of Sophia’s presents. And then there is the story of the fig cookies.
My kids have heard the stories so many times that by now they finish my sentences for me. And though they know the story of the cookies, only a few of them had ever sampled those cookies on a visit to New York several years ago.
The story of the fig cookies started when I met my mother-in-law. She arrived at the airport with a 70-pound suitcase full of food that had been cooked “properly,” which meant she had baked it in her own oven.
She stayed for three weeks and did, eventually, have to eat some of my cooking as well. After that, she pretty much trusted me to cook for her son, but each year at Christmas, she sent along a tin full of Italian cookies. They were delicious.
I learned on her first visit that the fig cookies were my favorites, so each Christmas I would bargain with Brian. He could have all the other cookies in the tin if I could have the half dozen or so fig cookies that were included.
One year, we received a box full of only fig cookies, and I was thrilled. As we negotiated a fair distribution, a friend showed up and proceeded to eat more than half of the tin before we could divert his attention. I almost cried.
My mother-in-law took pity on my plight and wrote out the recipe that had been handed down through the generations from at least as far back as Brian’s great-grandmother. She had brought it from Sicily when she came over on “da boat.”
Finally, after 20 years of worrying I wouldn’t get it right, I resolved to try out the two-page recipe that starts out with 9 pounds of fruit and nuts and 5 pounds of flour.
Like all good family recipes, some parts are vague and call for interpretation. I was instructed to add 1 cup of coffee, “or more if you like.” The dough should be rolled “not too thin” and the filling heaped on “not too thick.” Six hours later, I was finished, and I knew why those tins had only come once a year.
The older girls offered to help with frosting and sprinkling the final product, and everyone offered to taste test and to consume the small end pieces and the cookies that had become misshapen. Cooperation comes easily when there are cookies to be had.
This year we added a new tradition to go along with our family story. Baking fig cookies was slow going and sometimes tedious, but it provided a welcome connection to family who lived in distant lands in days gone past.
“Mangia” to all, and Merry Christmas, too.
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