Cookies are magic.
We know it instinctively. It might be that some of us grew up believing that little elves who live in hollow trees make magic in the form of fudge stripes on shortbread. Or perhaps is the Christmas Eve ritual of leaving treats for old St. Nick. For me, the magic is in the memory of family kitchens filled with palpable holiday enchantments: forbidden cookie dough clinging to spoons and beaters, the bewitching and tortuous aroma of baking cookies almost ready. Just writing those words casts a craving on me that won’t quit.
And of all that aromatic cookie magic, the most potent is gingerbread. The secret, methinks, is in the formidable combination of ginger and molasses which creates a darkly sweet but lively dough that produces a rich baking aroma that gets inside of me and makes me feel warm and, of course, very, very hungry.
It’s not a new magic. Gingerbread in various incarnations populates the histories of the world, and the ritual of shaping food into shapes for a little magical mischief is an ancient juju. It may have all started with clay and idols, but, as the idea evolved into something more like hope than sorcery, the tools of enchantment became more toothsome.
By about year 1000, gingerbread was being baked into the images of saints, and in Medieval England, ladies would sometimes eat gingerbread husbands in hopes of acquiring the real thing. But how gingerbread men came to be a part of the Christmas tradition is unclear – it might have evolved from a German tradition of making gingerbread houses for the yuletide that started sometime in the 16th century. Or maybe it’s just one of those things that happens – somebody made a gingerbread Saint Lawrence and decided it would look good on a tree, and, abra cadabra, a tradition was born.
But the real magic of gingerbread isn’t in the shape – it’s in the creation, the act of the shaping, and the fact of the making. But it’s something that must be shared. Sharing kitchen time and recipes between generations is more than a link to a family’s tradition and history, it’s a bonding ritual that creates love and memories rooted in the practical magic of the senses and made firm by the sharing of that most precious of all enchantments: time.
The rich aroma of gingerbread in the oven is the aroma of home. And isn’t the magic of home a big part of what we observe this time of year? No matter what holiday we celebrate, it’s always better at home – whether that’s a family moment or time shared with close friends, perhaps even pets, spending time with those we love is the real charm.
Homemade gingerbread is the by-product of love, which, of course, is the greatest magic of all.
It’s never too late to find your inner wizard.