Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, was a magical day when I was a child. That was back in the day when the Christmas season, with its attending retail ads and sales, did not start months in advance. Santa Claus arrived at the tail end of the Thanksgiving Day parade on Thursday, and retailers opened their doors to the Christmas shoppers the next morning, Black Friday.
That was the first day the retailers unveiled their Christmas displays. The big department store windows along Market Street in Philadelphia delighted shoppers with a tableau of animated figures skating, opening gaily decorated Christmas packages, and penning letters to Santa Clause. Strawbridge & Clothier had an animated Dickens Christmas Village in their store for shoppers to walk through. The Grand Court in Wanamaker’s was the site of hourly Christmas light shows. Throughout the day, Christmas carols were played on The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world at that time. The modest displays and shows of the smaller retailers added to the Christmas cheer.
Although Philly was just a short bus ride across the bridge from my childhood home in Gloucester City, NJ, our family never spent Black Friday there; our traditional trip “into the city” to see the wonders of Christmas there, waited. It took a back seat to the Christmas traditions in our own home. For our family, Black Friday marked the start of the Christmas baking season, not the holiday spending season.
We were a family of modest means. My dad was a blue-collar worker, a railroad electrician for the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line, who moonlighted at various jobs throughout the year. My mom was a homemaker and stay-at-home mom. There was little in the way of discretionary income, and the bulk of the presents my sister and I found under the Christmas tree each year were homemade dresses and coats.
But each year, my parents invested in a Christmas Club, a short-term savings account that few, if any, banks still offer. A Christmas club allowed people to make weekly deposits all year long, to save up money for the holidays. That extra savings allowed my parents to purchase some store-bought presents for the family, to place under the tree alongside the home-sewn clothing. That savings also allowed my mom to give home-baked cookies to all our extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and countless others with whom she wished to share the holiday spirit.
Christmas baking commenced every year on Black Friday, and continued right up to the day before Christmas. There would be dozens of batches of cookies baked in those weeks – chocolate chips, peanut-butter kisses, rum-balls, brownies, sugar cookies, butter cookies, green Christmas wreaths, and cut-outs in the shapes of Santa, Christmas trees, bells, reindeer, and other holiday designs. But my favorites were the delicate little cookies that my mother called Norwegian Christmas cakes. They were the first cookies to be baked each Christmas season, and the ones the whole family helped with.
On Black Friday, right after breakfast, my sister and I would wash, dry, and put away the breakfast dishes. My dad would put the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas album on the record player. My mom would clean the kitchen table and start assembling the ingredients for that most wonderful first batch of cookies.
While we listened to Der Bingle croon “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Mele Kalikimaka”, “Christmas in Killarney” and the rest (with my dad occasionally singing along), my sister and I would use nutcrackers to crush sugar cubes into smaller pieces to be placed on the wreaths. My mom would mix the dough, and carefully shape each cookie. When I was old enough, I was given the job of brushing the cookies with beaten egg whites and coating them with the crushed sugar.
The Norwegian Christmas cake was not a particularly fancy cookie. Next to the green Christmas wreaths, or the iced Santa cutouts, they didn’t look particularly Christmassy. They were not in the same league as my mom’s signature cookies, her renowned butter cookies. And they were not the crowd-pleasers, like the chocolate chips, the brownies, and the peanut butter kisses. Yet, to this day, the unpretentious Norwegian Christmas cake remains my favorite Christmas cookie. The sight of one transports me back to that cozy kitchen. I hear Der Bingle proclaiming the joy of the season, and I am once again with my family, as we sing and laugh and work together at that most wonderful time of the year.
I recently found a recipe for a Norwegian Christmas Wreath that is almost identical to my mom’s Christmas cake cookies. I might whip up a batch or two this year. Feel free to stop back from time to time and sample some. I’ll keep the porch light on for you.
Norwegian Christmas Wreath Cookies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Mix in order given:
Mix with electric mixer:
½ lb. butter, softened
½ cup sugar
2 raw egg yolks (reserve the whites)
Add and mix with large wooden spoon:
2 hard boiled egg yolks rubbed through sieve
3 cups SIFTED all-purpose flour
Knead dough thoroughly
Break off small pieces and roll between palms of hands into ropes approximately ½ inch thick and 5 inches long.
Shapes ropes into wreaths, overlapping ends and allowing them to extend out from body of wreath. Place on cookie trays, spacing carefully and allowing for some spreading during baking.
Beat reserved egg whites with fork until foamy.
Carefully brush each wreath with beaten egg whites, making certain not to drip the egg whites on the tray, and sprinkle the coated cookies with coarse sugar crystals. (My mom never sprinkled, as she said that would allow the sugar to get on the tray and burn. She placed tiny lumps/large crystals – formed from cracking sugar cubes – onto the wreaths, pressing them lightly into the cookie dough)
Bake 10-12 minutes on ungreased cookie sheets. Allow sheets to cool on wire racks until cookies can be removed with a spatula without breaking. Cookies tend to be crumbly, so they must be handled carefully. Transfer to cool cookie sheets to cool completely before placing in a cookie tin.