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The Christmas cookie recipe that keeps my family close

Sometimes the smallest traditions that count most

They say you can never go home again — that someday, everything you've ever held dear to you will be gone. All you'll be left with are the memories you've made, and the imprints on your heart left by the people you love. For me, and I suspect for many others, it is memories from childhood Christmases that evoke the strongest sense of love-steeped nostalgia. And all it takes is one whiff of almond extract, and it's like I've stepped back in time. I can hear the laughter in the kitchen, I can see my family, and I can almost taste my grandmother's almond cookies, the recipe that brought us all together.

For as long as I can remember, every Christmas my family would pile in our tiny car and make the 1,000-mile journey to Southern Alabama. It had become one of my favorite family traditions, and I'd stare out the window excitedly and watch the world roll by, the December landscape of the Midwest transforming into the rolling hills of Kentucky and finally into the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

On our first night there, once the dinner dishes had been cleared, my grandmother would open the freezer and rustle around for the cookie tin full of the goodies I'd been waiting for. Giant, fully decorated "Santa Claus cookies," as my grandmother called them. It was a recipe she'd discovered years ago — in the 1940s — and took special care to "personalize" just the way she wanted. The dough needed to be chilled for hours and then rolled. Only then could the decorating begin: coconut for Santa's beard, chocolate chips for his eyes, a red hot for his nose, and red frosting for his suit, naturally. My grandmother baked the cookies weeks before we arrived to be sure she could get everything just right.

As we sat around the table and enjoyed my grandmother's creations, we'd listen to her tell story after story — tales from her childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, stories from her time in nursing school, memories of marrying my grandfather and saying goodbye to him right after as he went overseas during World War II. To me, her life was like a storybook, and I couldn't get enough of it.

As I got older, those cookies began to take on a whole new meaning for me. They were delicious and addictive, sure, but they also became a symbol of family togetherness that I could count on every year without fail. In sharing her cookies, my grandmother was sharing her life with all of us — we learned things about her we might never have known otherwise if we didn't take the time to sit down together. It was comforting and cozy and everything one's childhood should be. When I took the first bite of those cookies, I instantly knew I was home.

These days, my mom keeps the family recipe alive, even putting her own original spin on the cookies; instead of Santa Claus, she prefers round cookies full of thick, gooey frosting and topped with lots of sprinkles. In fact, her cookies have become so popular that people request them. They've made appearances at churches events, family parties, and have comforted people in their time of need. And when my cousin came to visit a couple years ago, my mom taught her how to make them, passing the famed tradition on to the next generation.

Since the deaths of both my father and grandmother within a year of each other, memories of home are deeply special to me. And just as our family has changed, so too have those almond cookies. But what's most important has stayed the same: My grandmother made those cookies with love for the people she loved most; that's one of the best gifts anyone could ever give.

The cookie recipe wasn't anything fancy, but then again, maybe it wasn't really about the cookies themselves. My grandmother knew something quite remarkable: Family is everything. For me, that lesson will last forever. I may never be able to go "home" again, but it's amazing how a little recipe can bring the feeling of home to me.

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