Friday, December 25, 2009

Ghosts of Christmas Past

By Kim

As a place to celebrate Christmas Gananoque was ideal. We had a Christmas tree to outdo all Christmas trees, our friends skied over from the island, the turkey was cooked just right; all in all a perfect day. Carl made me cookie cutters for Christmas cookies; I had every known animal, almost, and I made them with a little ring of dough at the top, through which we ran fine wire, and they hung all over the tree. Ducks, reindeer (those took some care in the baking), pigs, elephants, cats, chickens, geese, I could go on indefinitely. Those on the lower branches were the sole property of our cat, Peter. It was funny to see him nonchalantly reach up with his paw and knock one down, then lie under the tree and eat it. His Christmas package was always the same; a box of puffed rice wrapped as any other Christmas gift and tied with a red ribbon. He attended to the unwrapping with perfect ease. I can’t say he cleared up the mess afterward, but neither did the children.

Madonna Ahrens on Christmas in Gananoque, Ontario. (1917)

When I first read these lines written by my great-grandmother, I could smell a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air. I remembered those cookies; my dad made them a few times in my own childhood, always lamenting that he did not have his grandfather’s animal cutters. He stopped making them around the time his mother passed away. Perhaps the memory of her rolling out the dough grieved him, though he never spoke of it.

It was Christmas time when I began researching for my book on Carl and Madonna Ahrens. I had a small child of my own by then and desired a way to bring the past alive for her in a way a three-year-old would appreciate. Aunt Siegie happily supplied me with the Imperial cookie recipe, and mentioned that she had some of Granddaddy Carl’s handmade cookie cutters. She sent me tracings of them so I could see what they looked like, and my Dad used the pattern to make a copy of the rooster. I’ve made the cookies every year since.

Christmas is a season of nostalgia, so perhaps it’s not so unusual that I’d feel especially close to the ghosts of Christmas past at this time of year. Making Granny Madonna’s cookies allows me a connection to family I never had the chance to know in life. My kitchen smells the same as Madonna’s would have when she made them. Like my grandmother, I think they taste best after being dipped into hot chocolate. This year, in memory of my aunt Siegie, who passed away this past April after a four year battle with cancer, the first cookie I reached for was the pig. Among the things I received after her death was a box containing cookie cutters in the shape of a goose, rooster, squirrel, camel and pig. The first time I used them I saw a flash of Siegie seated at a table flanked by her mother and Granddaddy Carl. Madonna stood behind Carl, her hands on his shoulders, cheek resting on the top of his head. All were young, healthy, and laughing. While I miss Siegie very much, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad.

In honor of the memories of Carl, Madonna, Tutu, and Siegie, I share this recipe with all of you and hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Imperial Cookies (From the kitchen of Madonna Ahrens)

1/3 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 egg (well beaten)

¼ cup milk

2 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

2 tsp vanilla

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp cinnamon

Cream shortening (with fork or pastry cutter)

Add sugar, egg, milk and vanilla and cream again

Sift together remaining (dry) ingredients

Add dry ingredients to butter mixture ½ cup at a time

Cover and chill in refrigerator for 24 hours. [Madonna must have put it in the snow before they had electricity.]

When ready to bake, take some dough and roll out on a floured board as you would a pie crust. [Kim leaves it a bit thicker for softer cookies.]

Use cookie cutters to cut out cookies. You can re-roll the dough, but try to place the cutters as close together as possible. The dough can get tough if you reuse too much. [Kim adds fresh dough in each time she re-rolls.]

Lay cookies out on a cookie sheet. Cook at 360 degrees until they are lightly browned on the bottom. [Eight minutes works for Kim.]

Let cool and enjoy – especially with hot chocolate!


  1. Dear Kim,

    Happy holidays! This particular post conveyed the warmth and uniqueness of each family unit. It is important to carry on the traditions of yesteryear and to remember that all of us are linked to the past and to the future. It is difficult to express how I felt when I read this post, but I also felt like I was there. I felt like I could see what you described. Can't wait to try this recipe! Thanks for the update and God bless you.


  2. Kim,

    I really enjoyed your Christmas blog. I'm so glad you got some of the cookie cutters Siege originally sent you shapes for. The photo is saved in a folder so I can print it for next Christmas. I'm glad people in our family look back to those who came before us & get that "nostalgic" feeling we all share. I love the Holiday & I know those we feel a connection to live on in us & our traditions.


  3. Jeanette Ahrens26 December, 2009

    Hi Kim,
    Your cookie cutters and recipe are family treasures. It's amazing to consider the evocative power of something as simple as a cookie recipe and handmade cookie cutters passed down through several generations. I enjoyed Madonna's Christmas memoir and the way you've woven her words, her recipe, your family cookie cutters, and your memories of loved ones into your own lovely tradition. Your daughters are truly blessed.

  4. This was a treasure, Kim. What a lovely tradition you are passing down to your girls.

  5. Oh! Love stumbling across recipes to try! And cookies--yum! =D

  6. Nancy Tellier27 December, 2009

    Hi Kim,

    I enjoyed reading about your family cookie tradition, and seeing the photo taken in our house.

    I usually try to incorporate some antiques when I decorate Big Trees for Christmas, eg. some old toys and folk art on the window sill by the Christmas tree, an antique wooden snow shovel outside the front door (with a bow and greens added).

    This year, I also arranged some of my mother's and grandmother's old cookie cutters in an antique butter bowl (along with a butter press and donut maker), on the hutch in the dining room. Some of the cutters are very similar to yours. (I have lots more, but they're for other holidays, like a heart for Valentine's etc.)

    Happy New Year!

  7. Nancy,

    I fudged a little in the blog because the story was from 1917, but the photo, as you know, was taken in your house. Judging by the age of my grandmother, Chloris, who was standing against the wall off to the left, I would say it is in the late 1920's. Interestingly enough, their son Laird is not in the photo - perhaps he took it. The laughing young man is Grant Macdonald, who was a student of Carl's and an excellent artist in his own right. I don't know who the man is near my grandmother - perhaps another student. The very tall figure is, of course, Carl. Madonna is beside him (seated). The girl next to Grant is their daughter, Sigrid.

    It is so cool for me to look at this photo and know exactly where in the house it was taken. Thank you so much for opening up your home for me and a bunch of family members all those times I've come to your neck of the woods over the last few years.


  8. Katrina and Sara - the cookies are very yummy. Not overly sweet. If you don't like cinnamon or nutmeg you won't like them - otherwise I don't know anyone who hasn't loved them. They are best dunked with hot chocolate.

    Dan and Pamela - Yes, I will treasure those cookie cutters - and I will pass them down.

    Jeanette - thanks for your comment, as always. They always reassure me that my writing conveys just the right sentiment.

  9. Isn't Christmas wonderful? I took several guilt-free trips down Memory Lane this year. The fifty-plus year old ornaments on my tree prompted memories of my childhood. A fairly new tradition of hunting for panettone (Italian "Tony's bread") with my mother grew deeper. Christmas is what we hold in our hearts, and in our thoughts. Thanks for sharing both with us.

    Mike Ahrens, Winterwonderland, Iowa

  10. This beautifully written post brought back so many wonderful memories involving our favorite Christmas cookies. Just wouldn't be Christmas without them.


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