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Jojo Montessinos of Vista enjoyed taking part at the annual gingerbread cookie baking day at the author’s home. Photo by Jano Nightingale
ColumnsJano's Garden

Holidays a time for traditions

An orange in the bottom of the Christmas stocking. A simple, yet heartfelt gift for four children who, in 1960, were not expecting much from their parents who were in the military.

But in the cold town of Racine, Wisconsin, oranges were hard to come by, and they looked forward to them each year.

Chris Bany, now a Southern Californian, continued, “But we did go on to create a hardy Hungarian Christmas dinner including dumplings and Chicken Paprikash.”

We all have family memories of holiday traditions this time of year and mine started out in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house.


The family tradition of baking gingerbread cookies to hang on the tree started with my Dutch grandmother, Edna VanDenBerg. It seems that cooks of many nationalities have made gingerbread, but she was our go-to baker for all things sweet and delicious.

The recipe that my family has referred to time and time again is from the original “Joy of Cooking,” by Irma Rombauer. I still have my mother’s edition from 1971, which is well-worn and used on a monthly basis.

My son and I still make these cookies each year, and since we have lived in California, we have invited his friends to join us.

An added touch to the original recipe is to purchase ornament hooks, in the smallest size, to poke into the top of the gingerbread man’s head, so you can hang them on a tree or wreath.

Also, shop for candy decorations before baking. I use Red Hots or raisins, for eyes and buttons, because they don’t melt. After cookies cool, you can decorate with white frosting in a piping bag.


Recipe adapted from “Joy of Cooking.”

For best results dough should be refrigerated before baking.

This recipe can be mixed in food processor or large mixer. Makes 10 cookies, recipe can be doubled.

• Blend until creamy — ½ c. butter, ½ c. brown sugar

• Beat in — ½ c. dark molasses

• Sift together in separate bowl — 3½ c. white flour, 1 tsp. each cinnamon, ginger and cloves, ½ tsp. salt

• Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with ¼ c. water until stiff dough forms.

• Remove from bowl, shape into large ball and refrigerate for at least one hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

• After dough has cooled, place on floured wax paper and roll into ¼-inch slab. Place cookie cutters on slab, cutting out cookies as needed and place on cookie sheet, sprayed with cooking oil spray. Before baking, place the Red Hots candy on cookies for decoration. Be sure to place the ornament hooks at top of head before baking as well.

• Bake for 8-9 minutes, checking frequently. Cookies should feel hard to the touch. Allow to cool completely and decorate with white frosting.

• Cookies will last, if not eaten, for over a month if stored in a metal cookie tin or hung on your tree! Gingerbread men make wonderful gifts, wrapped in a special metal tin. Enjoy!


Each family celebrates their own holiday traditions, and my former husband’s family celebrated Hanukkah in the Jewish tradition.

I asked my son which foods he remembered from the Hanukkah feast, and he replied, “Matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket and the gelt.”

Now, gelt is not really a food, but chocolate coins covered in gold paper. The tradition of hunting for “the gelt” in the house was one that my son and his cousins looked forward to with glee.

Maybe finding the gelt was similar to my friend Chris’ tradition of finding an orange in his stocking. A gift that did not cost a great deal but was held in joyful anticipation each year by the children in the family.


Please send us a recipe or remembrance of your family’s tradition for the upcoming holidays. We will try to publish your contributions in the next few weeks. Email me at [email protected] — we look forward to hearing from you!

Jano Nightingale is a Master Gardener and teaches vegetable gardening at the Pine Street Community Garden Senior Center Garden Club. Contact her for upcoming classes at [email protected].