While Santa was likely polishing his spectacles in anticipation of reviewing nice and naughty lists in early November, the kitchen at the Bakers' Emerson home in North Laurel began warming up with the spirit of giving.
That's when Leah Baker started shopping in bulk for the flour and sugar she would need to create more than 1,000 handcrafted Christmas cookies, a December baking marathon that coincides with the appearance of shimmering lights and holiday decor.
The family tradition started small in 2006 when Leah Jordan — then a family consumer science, or home economics, teacher at Pennbrook Middle School in Pennsylvania — married waterproofing product salesman Brian Baker.
The first Christmas after they married, Leah started baking cookies for some of Brian's clients; she also gave a few as gifts to neighbors, friends and staff at the school where she taught.
Brian Baker's client list grew steadily, the Baker family moved to Laurel four years ago and the annual cookie baking tradition evolved over the years into a massive production that involves everyone in the family.
As she has done every year for the past decade, Leah Baker began mixing and freezing her cookie dough the day after Thanksgiving. This year, she was ably assisted by two excited little elves — Adyson, 4, and Chace, 2.
Chace, she said, loves to turn on her Kitchen Aid mixers, and Adyson helps her mother measure and mix the ingredients. Leah Baker does the scooping and baking for 10 nights running.
Along with their dad, the little Bakers step up happily to the tough job of taste testing, a part of the production process that Leah — who typically gets up at 5 a.m. to work out — is happy to abdicate.
"I have no idea what Snickerdoodles taste like," she said. "Cinnamon in cookies doesn't appeal to me."
Baker said she prefers to wait until close to Christmas Eve to begin nibbling her favorite M&M cookies, but the house smells wonderfully of fresh baked cookies the entire month of December.
Brian Baker, part owner of Preservation and Protection Systems on Laurel's Main Street, hand-delivers most of the cookies during the week before Christmas.
"My customers are the most happy to see me when I deliver their cookies; it's the one time I don't need an appointment to get in to see them." Brian Baker said.
"I think he's very proud that I make these for him, because he comes home smiling after he gives them out," Leah Baker said.
Ellicott City resident Joe Stevens said he's known Brian Baker professionally for a decade; the Baker family cookies have always been "warmly welcomed and appreciated" at Consolidated Waterproofing Contractors in Beltsville.
"Come cookie delivery day, no matter what is going on or how busy the day is, we always stop what we are doing to enjoy the fresh treats," Stevens said.
Laurel resident Craig Flater, of Kenseal Construction Products, in Beltsville, said he's worked with Brian Baker at Preservation and Protection Systems for the past six years.
Fourteen staff members at Kenseal are looking forward to the arrival of a huge tray of cookies as in years past, and they'll be gone within two to three hours, Flater said. He believes the gift contributes to "a more personal relationship" with Preservation and Protection Systems.
"All the cookies are super delicious, but my favorite is the chocolate chip," he said. "I know Leah puts a lot of effort into making the cookies, so that extra time and effort means a lot in today's fast-paced world."
The Bakers do keep some cookies for themselves. And Leah Baker said she delivers small packages to her trainers at Power Train Gym, in Columbia, and she mails some to family and friends in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.
Last year, Baker said she was touched to find "Best Day Ever" on North Carolina resident Christina Kassop's social media status; Kassop credited receiving her cookies as the reason.
The two women met several years ago at a Stroller Strides class called Fit4Mom Howard County (where Baker was an instructor), and struck up a close friendship. The Kassop family moved to Southern Pines when Christina's Army husband was stationed at Fort Brag; they received their first package of Christmas cookies from the Baker family last Christmas.
"It was very sweet; I was missing home and it was so thoughtful of her," Kassop said. "I'm definitely looking forward to my package this year."
Some of the tips Baker said she's picked up after baking thousands and thousands of cookies include using parchment paper on her baking sheets, cooling the baked cookies on brown paper bags instead of wire racks and adding a little extra flour to standard recipes to make the cookies extra fluffy.
And unlike in 2006, when the newlyweds first began the tradition, Baker said she doesn't attempt to make cut-out cookies, which takes too much prep time.
Today, she works smarter.
Her easiest recipe (and Kasa's favorite), the Funfetti cookie, simply requires adding one third cup of oil and two eggs to a box of Funfetti cake mix and rolling them into balls to bake for 6–8 minutes, yielding about three dozen pretty cookies per batch.
Baker's other specialties — Snickerdoodles, M&M cookies, chocolate chip, chocolate peanut butter chip, peanut butter cup and salted peanut chews — are a little more involved, but also very popular, she said.
And packaging 1,500 assorted cookies in trays, tins and boxes for more than 30 deliveries requires a bit of planning.
The overall cost for everything, she said, runs about $200.
Although she has her process down pat, Baker said she couldn't consider going commercial, at least not unless a double oven appears under the tree in the Christmas future.
The Bakers have fallen in love with their new home in Howard County; they had their Christmas card photo taken this year at Bollman Bridge. And the littlest Bakers are looking forward to a community visit from Santa Claus, courtesy of the Savage Volunteer Fire Dept., on Dec. 20.
"I love it here," Leah Baker said. "I would never move away."
Adyson, Leah said, has already promised Santa — at a visit to Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg — to leave him M&M cookies on Christmas Eve.
"Santa said, 'oh, good, I'll look forward to that,'" Adyson said.