In the spirit of giving this holiday season, I thought I would share a memory written for me by my mother, Elsie DeGarmo-Smith, who we lost this past year at the age of 91. For me, and so many others in her circle, it was Mom's own personal touch that created the magic of the season. Her motto of reaching out to others, caring for the lonely and downtrodden, even though you, yourself, may be grieving for lost husbands. Along with the gingerbread man tradition, she had us at an early age sending our own homemade Christmas cards and gifts to extended family, including many elderly folk in town. Her large, open house Christmas eve buffets always ended with a reading of “The Night before Christmas” by Miss Lulu Kisselbrack, will all the animation one would expect from a beloved second grade teacher. Everyone left happy, driving off to the candlelight services at various churches in town, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas”.
Here's Mom's story (and recipe):
My gingerbread man cookie recipe was in the red Christmas book I received from my first husband. It remained my favorite recipe among the twelve cookies I made every year for my family, the neighbors, the church, and many Christmas parties. It was a delicious, hard and crunchy favorite of my young husband and children, who loved it as a breakfast treat, even without frosting, with a cold glass of milk.
Our adopted home, Pine Plains, was a tiny village in the mid-Hudson Valley, where everyone knew everyone. Most were related. It was a dairy farming area and became the first home in the United States of the Aberdeen Angus from Scotland. The Grange was in “full swing” as was the small country Methodist Church that we attended. Most of the congregation were farmers and Grangers and their wives were marvelous cooks for our monthly church dinners.
My husbands and I were not from there, but met on the school faculty. We soon became a part of the local community and started a tradition on Christmas Eve. Lin (later Jim, both taken young by cancer) and the kids delivered bags of our homemade cookies throughout the neighborhood, especially to the older folks. There were always several “men” tucked inside the gift basket, always given with a big smile and a big hug.
Our annual gingerbread man decorating party started soon after, when the kids were preschoolers. Each child invited a friend or two. I made the gingerbread men ahead in several sizes. The kids frosted shirts and pants on the baked cookies with several colors of homemade confectionary sugar glaze, and they added eyes, noses, buttons using raisins, sprinkles and candy. Everyone wore aprons. Everyone took cookies home. Everyone had a messy wonderful time! Needless to say it was very successful tradition that went on through elementary school and into high school with all five children. I even had photos of my Dad (Pop), on a Christmas visit from Florida, frosting the gingerbread men with help from a grandkid or two home from college.
When the kids were a little bit older I decided to add a new adventure to the cookie making and distribution. A local farmer, Lew Wells agreed to bring his big hay wagon into town from his farm, so we could have a Christmas caroling party. We stopped and sang while we delivered gingerbread cookies to the elders and shut-ins of the village. We continued this tradition for several years, ending up back at the house for hot cocoa and fancy, oven hot dogs in foil. Each year Lew refused to let me rent the wagon, but he always would take home a bag of the largest frosted gingerbread man cookies.
Many years later, these gingerbread man cookies are still my favorite. I continue to make them for my oldest son, Lindley, as a Christmas present. He loves them for breakfast with his coffee. I’m sure his Dad is glad that he gave me that red Christmas book all those years ago. I know I am.
Gingerbread Man Cookie
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar
1 beaten egg
3 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
Stir and bring to a boil the shortening, sugar, molasses, and vinegar. Cool; add egg. Sift dry ingredients together; add to first mixture. Mix well. Chill. On slightly floured surface, roll to about 1/4 inch thick. Place on greased cookie sheet. Bake in moderate oven (375) 8 to 12 minutes (according to size and thickness of cookies - I like them lightly browned). Cool 5 minutes and then remove from cookie sheet.
I always make 2 or 3 recipes at a time. That’s when you my have to use your hands and arms to get the dough well mixed. I also have patted the dough into flattened rounds, placed them in plastic bags to chill in the refrigerator for at least a half hour or even over night if time was too short for immediate baking. The new, modern heavy mixers should make it less strenuous, but not as much fun.
Elsie Borden DeGarmo-Smith (1928-2020) had a long career as a manager, trainer, and motivational speaker across the United States in educational sales, and earlier work in public schools as a nurse, teacher, and guidance counselor. She also opened her home for 18 years to developmentally disables adults. Elsie grew up in Kings Park, Long Island, raised 5 children in the mid-Hudson Valley, and was very proud of her 9 marvelous grandchildren.
This article was first published in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Fall-Winter 2012, Volume 38: 3-4, p. 46 and used by permission from NYFolklore.org.