The time between St. Nicholas, on the sixth of December, and Christmas Eve was the most exciting for us children. The fear of ending up in the jute sack of Schmutzli, St. Nicholas’ frightening helper, had receded and we could breathe a sigh of relief. Now began the time of preparation for the most wonderful day of the year, Christmas.
Mother had started to leaf through books, yellow with age, for Christmas Cookie recipes, baked annually – following an age-old Swiss tradition.
This was no ordinary undertaking. The eclectic mix of confectionaries constituted our Christmas gifts for Reverend Paul, Sister Dolores, our teacher, and any other deserving villager. For that huge bake-off Mother required the help of her sister, our Tante Elsie. Every year she ventured from her home in town to our farm high up in the mountains, staying for a while, lending a hand not only with baking but also with spinning and knitting.
The evening before her arrival, Mother took the key from the hook in the kitchen and opened up the winter larder. My brother, Peter, and I were allowed a look – just look – no touching. We marvelled at the shelves with the bags of fine white flour, the jars of walnuts, the jute sacks of hazelnuts, the dried pears, and apples strung on strings. We pressed our noses close to the cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, sugar cones, and slabs of chocolate wrapped in cellophane and tried to catch the fragrant scent. Blocks of yellow butter churned and “put by” for several weeks, glowed between their wooden pats. Trays of eggs, laid by our busy hens, were stacked on the mud floor.
The next morning, on our way to school, heavy clouds played hide and seek with the mountains. At first, a flurry of fine snow danced around and then wet shreds of flakes started to obliterate the path. A glacial wind made us tie our scarves tighter, letting only our eyes peek out.
“Oh, Lily, Tante Elsie won’t come in this weather,” Peter whined and kicked at the snowbank with his hobnail boots. He pulled at his woolen hat, trying to cover his ears.
“She might not, but then she might.” I tugged at the sled stuck in a deep snowdrift, shrugging deeper into my rough-spun coat.
Wednesday was a half-day, school in the morning only. The snow fell piteously, and by the time we returned home the overhanging roof of our farmhouse sagged under the heavy load. Smoke curled from the chimney suffusing the air with the fragrant smell of burning wood. Father was busy shovelling a path from the house to the stables, the mounds on either side growing ever higher. The broad sled, with runners curved like animal horns, stood by the front door, meaning only one thing: Father had been down to the railway station to fetch Tante Elsie.
“See, she’s here. They’re baking, hurray!” I grabbed a handful of snow throwing it at Peter who performed a handstand.
We stamped up the outside steps, trying to rid our boots of snow and brushing at our clothes. Stepping inside the cavernous kitchen, we flung our shoes and coats off.
Mother and Tante Elsie, both of stout build and florid complexion, stood by the scrubbed table, hands deep in pudding basins. Their dark hair was severely combed back into knots. They could have been twins. Even their voice was the same. “Mind, children, take care,” they shouted in unison. Trays of star-and heart-shaped Mailänderlis, glistening with egg wash, balanced precariously on the dresser.
Tante Elsie held up her flour-covered hands and pecked us on the cheek. “Look at you two. You’ve grown.”
Mother opened the fire door of the huge range. “Children fetch more logs, please, we need more heat before the Mailänderlis go in.”
We traipsed to the barn and carried an armful of logs back to the house.
“I want to help with baking, not lug around silly firewood.” I groaned.
“All we’re allowed to do is watch. And we can forget lunch, they are far too busy.” My brother grizzled.
Tante Elsie grated a slab of chocolate into the Brunsli dough, kneaded it once more, and then put the bowl out on the veranda to cool. These cookies were my favourite, dark brown, sprinkled with sugar, crisp on the outside but gooey in the middle, tasting of spices, hazelnut, and chocolate.
The dates, Tante Elsie had bought on the market in town, winked at me with a syrupy glint. She cut them into tiny slivers.
“Dattel- Schümli.” She pointed her chin at the whipped egg whites towering in a bowl, reminding me of the snowy peaks of our mountains.
Mother crooked her finger. “Lily, come here, you can help. Nothing much can go wrong with Pfeffernüsse, but hands first and apron.” I stuck out my tongue at Peter, doing a little dance while I washed my hands in the big stone sink. I grabbed my apron from behind the door.
Like a chain of amber, the golden syrup drizzled into the bowl. I added orange and lemon peel, almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and pepper, following the recipe in one of Mother’s tomes, carefully, fearfully. Nothing must go wrong. A sweet, spicy aroma filled the air when I crushed the star anise with the back of a knife. The sugar had to be grated from the cone using a chisel-like gadget and carefully weighed. The butter and eggs went in next and then the flour, creating a perfect snowstorm. Swiftly I worked all the ingredients together, knowing that overworking creates tough pastry.
My stomach growled. I stuck a finger in the dough, carefully hooked a tiny bit out, and put it in my mouth, savouring the flavours, peppery, sugary, tangy all at the same time, melting on my tongue.
A scream. I ducked. I was found out!
“God in heaven, we’ve forgotten the Mailänderli. They only need ten minutes.” Tante Elsie grabbed the oven cloths and pulled open the range door. Mother made the sign of the cross. The cookies looked perfect; the yellow egg wash baked to a wonderful light brown. Panic over. We inhaled deeply. Caramel and vanilla fragrances made us long to savour one, just one.
After Mother made Peter wash and brush his hands several times, he was allowed to help me shape the Pfeffernüsse into walnut size balls. They were next in line for the oven.
Father came stomping in from the stable asking as to the whereabouts of his lunch. We all sat around the table in the sitting room. Mother cut big wedges of bread, freshly baked that morning, slivers of smoked meat, and chunks of cheese. Tante Elsie poured steaming milk coffee into our mugs. Like frightened chickens, both women run back and forth checking on the precious batches in the range.
Mother ticked off her list. “Next, we’ll make Mandelbӧgli and Schwabenbrӧtli. Elsie, you could do the Zimsterne dough because tomorrow when the range has cooled down we could bake them together with the Brunslis and the Dattel Schümli. They need very little heat, more drying than baking.” She said.
“We can use these special things for the Schwabenbrӧtli, can’t we, Mother?” I asked, jiggling the slightly rusty aluminum cutters shaped like stars, hearts, mushrooms, half moons, and Christmas trees.
Tante Elsie passed around a small plate of Mailänderli. “And who would like a little taster?”
We slowly, reverently bit into our cookie. Fine in texture, meltingly light, it crumbled just like it should, tasting of vanilla and toffee. Licking the crumbs from around our mouths, Peter and I sighed. How could we survive so many sleeps until Christmas Eve?
The following evening after Mother had lit the second candle on the Advents wreath, we filled the tins and jars, standing them neatly on the shelves of the dresser. Each was crammed full with an assortment of sweet delicacies.
Relieved, Mother hugged Tante Elsie, Peter and me. It was generally declared that our Christmas Cookie baking had been a success and would please even the most discerning palate.
I grew up in Switzerland and now live on the South coast in England with my husband and cat. I have always loved writing since I was a child. Various publications and a story read on the radio have encouraged me to keep writing. My writing especially covers events, traditions of my childhood but I also write more broadly about other subjects.