As a child, I was amazed that Baltimore's downtown department stores ripped out their Christmas windows so promptly after Dec. 25. There, on a freezing winter day, would be mannequins dressed in bathing suits. There'd be travel posters and beach umbrellas, too. When I asked my mother why the red-and-green decorations didn't linger longer, she told me the stores had moved on and were now into the cruise season motif.
There was no cruise season observance at the old house on Guilford Avenue where I grew up. In fact, these days were some of the best of the year, the time when the holiday cakes and cookies were still in strong supply - and the pre-holiday pressure had evaporated. It was the time to rest and enjoy what December's energy and industry had supplied.
I've always been a big fan of those winter afternoons when the sun is actually beginning to show a little more strength. It's a time for visiting and catching up with old friends and eating down what got prepared over the high festival days.
My grandmother Lily Rose and her sister Cora baked so many cookies there was never a thought to their giving out before the middle of January. I often wonder how many they made because our head count at the table was 12, and I never once left it without having as many butter-rich cookies as I wanted.
The children, and there were six of us, were allowed to help with the baking. There was so much cookie dough they had to mix it in a large metal basin. Then they would wash out this vessel and fill it with homemade eggnog, which they replenished from time to time with more heavy cream, eggs and Maryland rye. The eggnog sat in the cold pantry alongside a bushel basket of Maryland oysters. They were free to any takers, provided you did your own shucking.
You knew you were really an honored guest when my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, summoned you to his room on some pretext and then offered you a jigger of his best rye, Wight's Reserve, made in Baltimore County.
Because they did things the way their mother did, Lily and Cora indulged in a curious practice. In the fall, they cured their own sauerkraut in heavy stoneware crocks. Then they cleaned out the crocks and filled them with their Christmas cookies. They stored the cookie-filled crocks in a cellar cupboard and each night one of the children would be given the job of going downstairs and filling a bowl with cookies. It was not just any bowl, but an elegant silver bowl that had been a wedding present to my grandparents.
They placed the filled bowl in the center of the table, and you helped yourself. Like the oysters, you could have more, but you had to go into the cellar for a resupply.
They had nothing against cookie tins but never used them. They used tins for the Christmas cakes - chocolate, orange, coconut, pound and fruit, which also hung around well in those wonderful early-January days. They really guarded their fruitcake, which they reverenced as an old family recipe. They cut the slices so thin the cake lasted until February.
The cookies lasted until maybe Jan. 15 or so. I can see them at dessert time, the smoking lamp lighted, grandfather with his cigar, Cora with her Chesterfield, Uncle Jacques with his Camel and my mother with her Lucky Strike, all puffing away and occasionally reaching for that cookie and a cup of coffee. Then the doorbell would ring with guests and somebody would have to make a trip to the cellar again.