Growing up, my mother baked a few special treats at Christmas time. She made naniamo bars and shortbread (always complaining about the price of butter). She helped us make shaped sugar cookies a few times, even using coloured “paint” to decorate them. And every year without fail, she helped my sister and I make Strawberry Cookies.
The first thing you have to know about these cookies is that they do not include any actual strawberries. In fact, they require very few ingredients and are mostly made of sugar. They require only shredded coconut, condensed milk, and jelly powder. Strawberry flavoured, of course.
Making these unbaked confections is simple–simple enough even for toddlers–but it is definitely messy. All of the ingredients are dumped into a huge bowl, except for one package of jelly powder, which goes on a separate plate. Then everything is mixed together–mom’s strong arms were often needed to finish the job–before being rolled into small bite-sized morsels. Then one by one, those balls are rolled in the plate of jelly powder and left to dry.
I think that the original creators of this recipe meant for the “balls” to be shaped like actual strawberries, and I have seen such things at fancy church bazarres. In our house, however, mom was lucky to have us make them somewhat the same size and in roundish sort of shapes. Creating that kind of uniformity was never my strong suit, which meant that my older sister did a fair bit of re-rolling with my cookies every year.
The best part of making Strawberry Cookies was definitely the clean up. By the time all the pink bits had been rolled into balls, our hands were caked with the sticky pink dough. Washing them would be a waste, we knew, so we would happily spend half an hour licking our palms, nibbling off the bits of coconut, and periodically showing each other how pink our tongues had become.
Despite their sickly sweet taste, my sister and I made these cookies faithfully, year after year. When our own children arrived, it was one of the first family traditions to be passed down. We have glorious pictures of seven children–all under the age of six–sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by pink powder. My children still insist that we make them every year.
I have been thinking that it’s an odd tradition, those fruitless cookies. There is nothing about them that has to do with Christmas, given that strawberry season in Ontario is late June. They are not fancy to look at and not time-consuming or delicious enough to restrict them to special-occasion cooking.
No, our Strawberry Cookies are an important tradition for entirely different reasons. They are about the time that my sister and I spent tucked away in mom’s kitchen, giggling, making a mess, and being together. Those cookies drew us into a joint venture, a rare occurance between us. They became a symbol of togetherness and getting along.
Some traditions are like that, I suppose. They may have nothing to do with the celebration in an obvious sort of way, but manage to illumine the season anyway. For us, it was a little like Isaiah’s vision of the lion and the lamb lying down together. There was, for a brief moment, peace and harmony in an unlikely place. We sat side by side, helping each other, working together.
This year, as my children lick that pink paste from their palms, I know that I can expect the same hush to fall over them. All arguments will cease, competition will be no more, and contentment will reign. Even if it only lasts for a few brief moments, it is a Christmas gift I will savour. Strawberry cookies are sweet, but a gift of family harmony is sweeter still.