The new and the old

Our decorating is pretty well done. There’s a pot I want to fill with evergreens, but it can wait another day or two. Today I decided it was time to make a start on Christmas baking. Other than the fruitcakes traditionally made and stashed away in early November, there are only a few stale chocolate chip cookies in the house.

Out came the old familiar recipes. Peanut butter snowballs? Mmm, love them! I could eat them like candy. Oh, but they require chilling and rolling into balls; then there’s icing to make, dipping, more rolling in cocoanut. No, not today. Shortbread? My hubby loves shortbread but his favourite is the old Scottish style, kneaded until the dough cracks, pressed into a pan and chilled, followed by long, slow baking. Did I say kneading? Not the way my wrists are today, thank you.

Ah, perhaps the newer alternative — whipped shortbread. Apparently more serious bakers than I am have known about this recipe for years, but I was first introduced to it a few years ago when my son made a batch. Just put the five ingredients together and let the mixer do all the work. Drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and pop them into the oven. That’s my kind of recipe. Newer isn’t always better, but, besides the ease of making, I like the tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of these buttery morsels. And if it means the difference between shortbread or no shortbread, my hubby is enthusiastic about them, too.

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With a mug of tea in one hand and a shortbread cookie in the other, I sat down to admire the decorated tree. There are a few new ornaments on it this year — I can never resist anything to do with snowflakes — but it’s the beloved old ones that always draw my gaze first.

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There are a couple that have been on every tree since I was born (I mentioned one of them in this post last year), and there are a handful that once adorned my parents’, my inlaws’ and my grandparents’ trees. This fragile bird  is one of those treasures. It’s special not so much because it’s old, although it is — possibly a hundred years old — but because of its history. It has witnessed generations of our family from its perch on various branches. Gatherings with family and friends, laughter, meals shared, gifts opened… “if it could talk, what stories might it tell?”

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Many homes have heritage items — if not ornaments displayed on a tree, then perhaps other things on a shelf or in a cabinet. I don’t think of ours as valuable from a monetary perspective, but they’re significant family heirlooms. When I wrap them up for another season of storage, there are slips of paper noting their origins that go in with them because it occurred to me one year that if nobody else knows about them, their history will end with my husband and me.

The main character in my last novel is eccentric enough to keep an album with photos and an explanation about everything she values. I call her eccentric because she has no children or close relatives to peruse her albums or care about her possessions after she’s gone! But this little quirk tells the reader something about her personality. As long as they aren’t overdone quirks and idiosyncrasies can be useful in defining our characters.

My expanding waistline is going to define me if I don’t stop munching on these cookies!

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What methods do you use to make your characters memorable? Are family heirlooms of significance in any of your stories? Do you have any special Christmas treasures? Oh, and what’s your favourite Christmas cookie?

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“In every conceivable manner,
the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future”

Alex Haley

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“In each family a story is playing itself out,
and each family’s story embodies its hope and despair.”

Auguste Napier

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