There's something special about the way fresh-baked cookies usher in the holiday season with scents that can stimulate a whirlwind of memories.
"I grew up baking with my mom," said Gamber resident Renee Yingling, a member of Calvary United Methodist Church in Gamber.
Yingling volunteers annually for Cavalry UMC's Cookie Walk. The Dec. 3 event offers a plethora of Santa-worthy cookies for sale from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $7 per pound, mix-and-match style.
"Baking cookies is something my mom did with myself and my three sisters and all of her grandchildren," Yingling said. "We have pictures of us when we were little and pictures of my nieces and nephews and sons decorating cookies, too. The pictures are in my mom's recipe book with all her favorite cookie recipes."
History traces holiday cookies back to the middle ages with gingerbread ushering other flavors into the tradition. History.com credits Queen Elizabeth I of England for the first gingerbread man in the late 1500s when she had the cookie molded into the shapes of her favorite courtiers. Well-known cookbook author Brette Sember agreed in her writings.
"Germans are also responsible for associating Christmas trees with Christmas cookies," Sember wrote for an online blog. "As early as 1597, Alsatians hung oblaten [decorated communion wafers] on their tannenbaums."
Sember said the tradition of leaving cookies out for Santa began during the Great Depression, as a way for parents to encourage generosity in their children, and the tradition stuck. Encouraging generosity in youth is part of the reason the Cookie Walk is held at Cavalry UMC.
"The money from the cookie walk goes to help the youth ministry in our church and that includes a work trip called Camp Hope," said the Rev. Martin Brooks, of Cavalry UMC. "The program is in Frostburg, Maryland. Our youth have been going in the summer for the past 20-some years to do home repairs. They help very needy families who own their own homes but cannot afford to hire a contractor. The money we raise goes towards [them] staying in the dorms at Frostburg University, for building supplies and other expenses. We worked on four different projects last year which was great for Camp Hope and for the homeowners."
Finksburg resident Gail Evans, chairwoman of the cookie walk, said this is the event's sixth year. She said the cause of Camp Hope is important to her, too.
"I went with my kids when they were teenagers," Evans said. "I've gone for almost every year for 25 years. It is a way of giving back and of putting your faith in action by helping other people. They are always so grateful for everything we do. It's a warm feeling to help someone else. They welcome us into their homes. And it's especially good for the teenagers to experience that feeling."
"Both my sons returned from that trip with a sense of humility, knowing that they are very blessed and that there are many kids who don't have what they have," she said. "They had a lot of reflection time in the evening and both my sons had very profound experiences. The whole thing helps them center themselves. We have very bright, very wonderful kids in our church and everyone has come back a more mature, more spiritual younger person."
Yingling said many of the church youth bake cookies. Others are there to help people hold their boxes as they fill them with cookies, carry them to the car and assist during the sale. But when there is downtime, she has another project going in the kitchen.
"Shepherd's Staff has a program with stockings for the needy and now they have sacks for seniors, too," Yingling said. "I get the supplies and when there is downtime they come and help me fill the stockings and the gift bags. There are stockings for girls and boys and [bags] for adult males and females. Last year we did 10 to 12 for each. There is poverty everywhere. I want to educate the youth in our church that places like Shepherd's Staff are instrumental in helping kids just like them who don't have as much."
Brooks said their youth set up the cookies in the morning, just before the sale opens at 9 a.m.
"There is a whole room full of cookies and cupcakes, all kinds of baked goods but mostly cookies," he said. "You get a box or bag when you come in and you pick what you want. It is weighed when you leave and you pay for that. The cookie walk closes at 1 p.m. or when supplies run out. Last year there were very slim pickings by 12:30, so it is better to get there early."
According to Brooks, visitors will find all kinds of cookies and even some for those with allergies.
"We have a lot of Christmas-themed cookies like chocolate chip, sugar cookies, peanut butter, oatmeal cookies — all the classic cookies," he said.
Both Yingling and Evans bake for the event.
"Our church members are wonderful bakers and very generous," Yingling said. "One gentleman in the church, Mr. Ed Wicks, used to make this cookie that had Heath bar mix and like a cracker crust with Karo syrup and dark chocolate. I just love it. Mr. Wicks is gone but I believe his daughter is doing them this year. We will have at least 10, 8-foot tables covered with cookies when we open up."
"You can get all kinds of cookies," Evans said. "I buy them and freeze them. I bake usually three batches of chocolate peanut butter, two or three dozen with the Hershey Kisses. I do at least 20 dozen and at least 20 or more people are baking cookies at least a batch or two and some bake more. We set up a big rectangle in the social hall and people walk around the edge. We have sugar, chocolate chip, peanut butter, Scotchies, molasses cookies. We had Russian teacakes last year. Some people do their specialty"
Evans said the event usually raises close to $1,000 for the youth.
"I think when you are going to visit someone it is always nice to take them something and cookies are easy to take," Evans said. "Someone I work with said she loves it because she can give them to her clients or as a gift to the hostess at a party. It is about sharing with others."
For Yingling, cookies and tradition are intertwined.
"I remember helping my own grandmother when I went back home to Pittsburgh," she said. "Baking cookies reminds me of the joy of my childhood and the holidays. When you come into the hall at our cookie walk the cookies are lined up and they smell so wonderful. If a couple break when we are setting them up we say, 'Oh Darn. I guess we have to sample them!'"
Brookes said he invites everyone to come out and have a good time while supporting the ministry of their youth.
"If you've got a sweet tooth our cookie walk is the place to be," Brooks said.
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Cavalry UMC is at 3939 Gamber Road. For more information about the cookie walk, call 410-795-9343.