– originally published in the Austin Chronicle
I’ll be honest — I can’t remember a damn thing about childhood Christmas. Well, that’s not exactly true. If I think real hard, I can piece together a few seasonal images (annual parties at my Aunt Rose’s house, rushing the tree at 4:30AM, setting that bear trap for Santa) but for the most part, every December before age fourteen is a complete blur.
But thanks to the magic of my aunt Noel’s Instamatic, I can reconstruct a few key facts. I know that we packed my grandparent’s house with kids. I know that we all wore footie pajamas. And most importantly, I know we ate our collective weight in Christmas cookies.
If you scan our family photo albums, every kid in a Christmas picture seems to be holding a half-eaten oatmeal cookie. Five-year-old cousins trim the Christmas tree gripping handfuls of pecan shortbread. Tiny smiles are dusted with a perpetual layer of powdered sugar.
Cookies and assorted homemade candies appear in every other picture because the provided the fuel for our biggest family gathering. For the kids, the constant flow of sweet treats propelled us through the annual reunion and kept our collective blood sugar level in the stratosphere.
Christmas around the Hebert house was a mob scene of a celebration. In the early years, my mom and her seven siblings gathered in Baton Rouge for a week of yuletide visits and frenetic holiday chaos. About a week before Christmas, my mother’s brothers would come in from northern exile, adding countless carloads of cousins to the swelling ranks of local grandkids. The four Hebert boys (Lee, John, Bart and Charlie) would come down from Chicago. Barbara and her kids flew in from Colorado. Sometime around the 20th, the extended family achieved critical mass, triggering a long run of high-sugar fun.
Our grandmother would pack the smiling pig-shaped jar with her famous oatmeal cookies and bake countless batches of whisper-thin teacakes. Fruitcake tins from Corsicana — blissfully relieved of their weighty cargo — would be repacked with rich slabs of fudge and sour/sweet lemon squares.
“The girls” — my mother and her sisters — each provided their own special treats. My godmother Lula (third child, second girl) always brought elaborately iced sugar cookies in various Christmas shapes (fat santas, pointy Christmas trees, lumpy camels) in foil-lined boxes. My mother whipped up her creamy pralines using fat local pecans and dark cane syrup. The birthday girl and youngest child Noel made just about everything else — from bite-sized pecan pies to butter-heavy shortbread “cocoons” that literally melted in your mouth.
Then there were the edible gifts given by family friends — offerings that became as much a part of our Christmas tradition as the blinking tree. Decorative containers filled with Missy McDermib’s “top secret” orange muffins sat beside the salty cheese straws from Anne Jane’s kitchen. Nuns from a local convent always gave my grandfather a few tins of velvety divinity fudge — beautiful blobs of rich albino sweetness, each topped with perfect pecan half.
Over the course of Christmas week, adults and children alike managed to work their way through the ton of accumulated sweet stuff — all the while smiling for impromptu portraits in front of exploding flashbulbs. There were a few token “real meals” thrown in for good measure, but the magic sweets always sustained us nicely for our weeklong reunion. Any unlikely leftovers would be split into empty tins and dispatched with departing families for the long ride home.
Months later — just as everyone’s blood sugar had returned to normal — the Christmas pictures would circulate from sister to sister to sister-in-law and back again.
And for those of us who can’t remember anything past the cookie-fueled blur, we’re grateful for this photographic record. Luckily when memory fails, we can still check the family albums and remember the times when we were all still wide-eyed and very, very sweet.
Juanita’s Lemon Squares
2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks oleo
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Cut oleo into flour and sugar with pastry blender. Pack in a greased and floured 9″x12″ cake pan (or spray with Pam). Bake in 350 oven for 15 mins.
4 well- beaten eggs
2 cups sugar
4 tsp. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
6 Tblsp. lemon juice
Grated rind of one lemon
Mix all ingredients together. Pour over the baked crust and bake at 325 for 25 minutes or until lightly browned and set. Cut into squares while warm. Dust with powdered sugar.