Gingerbread Men + Little Girls = A Messy Tradition

It seems to be that time of year again—back-to-back holidays. Lately, I can’t cook dinner without hearing holiday music coming from commercials announcing that Christmas is fast approaching. Just as I think it is too early to see these commercials, I also think it might be a little too early to write about them. That being said, I am going to allow myself this moment of reflection on what is to come.

As much as I adore Christmas, it does cause the occasional bout of anxiety as it gets closer and closer. There are the obvious reasons for this: uncertainty over buying gifts, always wondering if they will be well-received by their recipients; logistical arrangements around time off from work, and getting a place to stay that will house our ever-growing family; the taking of the holiday photo that never seems to actually happen. The list would probably be longer if I allowed myself to dwell on all that makes me stress, but it’s only the beginning of November, so there is time yet to think of all those things. There is one thing that I do look forward to, and yet still somehow dread, each holiday season.

It started a few years ago. I love traditions, and I’ve tried to carry on one that I had as a child: baking cookies. It started first with my grandmother when I was really young, baking gingerbread men. Then as I got a little older, I would bake all sorts of cookies with my mother: gingerbread people, spritz sugar cookies, rum balls, peanut blossoms. So, when my daughter was six, I decided to start baking cookies with her. But, to make it our own tradition, I decided that it would be even more fun for her if she were to invite a friend . . . or so I thought.

Before I describe the joy my daughter experiences decorating cookies with her friends each year, I should probably mention how I have a tendency to micro-manage those around me. With decorating cookies, I’m no different. I like to lay out all of the sprinkles, icing, and other decorations neatly on the table, as I proceed to direct the girls on how to use each, a little at a time, trying to be as neat as possible. When they were six, even seven, this wasn’t that difficult to do. As they got older, however, they wanted to do it themselves. One year, when she was maybe nine or ten, she had two friends over to help bake cookies, along with her brother. This time, when I attempted to tell them how to decorate the gingerbread men—gumdrops for buttons, icing to outline the clothes, raisins for eyes—she would have none of it. They wanted to do it their way.

So, I took a step back, and watched.

They started with the sprinkles, twisting off each cap, and violently shaking them up and down, covering the cookies with random colors. As they worked their way through each bottle, I saw the array of colors begin to spread across the table, the floor, even their hair. I wanted to stop them, to tell them to stop making such a mess—I wanted them to see the giant mess they were making. I stood their with a scowl on my face, ready to pounce on them if I were to see one more gumdrop hit the floor. As I waited, I watched them laughing at each other’s creations, teasing each other about their gingerbread men’s crazy faces, and joking about how insane they were going to make their next cookies look. I realized that as their mess grew, their enjoyment grew along with it.

In that moment, I was forced to admit that maybe not all messes were in fact bad.

What I remembered that day was: childhood is messy—and it should be. Some of the best days in my youth were spent digging ditches, painting with my fingers, and eating ice cream cones that would dribble down my face and hands. My advice for my daughter is to enjoy the messy times when they arrive because when she is older she will probably spend too much time either cleaning things up, or trying to keep things neat and orderly.

Published by Erin Rehill

A few years ago, my then eight-year-old daughter told me that she wished I could write down all the things I told her so that she wouldn’t forget them when she got older. In that moment, my daughter gave me such a sense of validation, something I hadn’t really experienced in that way. As parents, we don’t often receive confirmation from our children that we are doing a good job, or that we even know what we are talking about. Since that time, I’ve started to pay more attention to the things I tell her, often thinking to myself “Will she remember this when she is older?” So, this is for her, my words of advice to be read, thought about, laughed at, and maybe even used, when she is older.

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  1. The cooking messes are the ones I tend to simply let go and relax about. I like how you suggest your daughter enjoy it b/c it’s similar to what I’ve told my own children. When they spill something and look up at me expecting the “ugh” face…I just let it go whenever I can.

    1. I have to admit, sometimes I fail at this. I always feel awful after yelling over a glass of spilled milk (it’s the worst!). I think I’m down to only yelling maybe 2 out of 5 times. I’m working on it.

  2. I so agree with that philosophy – “childhood is messy—and it should be.” Even if the messes annoy me sometimes. I’m big on holiday traditions too. I felt like I didn’t have many as a child, so I’ve really tried to establish several with my girls. It’s worth it. Even when there’s a mess!

  3. I am the SAME EXACT WAY. I actually have a video of my daughter (barely 2 years old) on such a ridiculous sugar high after all but pouring the sprinkles straight into her mouth. My “micro-managing” mothering skills were sooooo close to losing it. SO CLOSE. I’m at the point now that whatever sprinkles we have left this year are the ones going on the Christmas cookies. Even if it’s bats left over from Halloween.

  4. That whole micromanaging the sprinkles thing? That’s me. And it’s why I let my husband bake and decorate cookies with the kids, while I’m (preferably) in another room.

    1. I can’t even imagine my husband doing it—I’d pay to see that! I hope you post some photos of your kids and husband baking—I’d love to see them!

  5. I totally agree with Christmas too soon! I am trying to hold out but we just got a Hobby Lobby here in our area . Erin I am caving stay tuned. I did cookies with our girltourage plus on Ry the only dude. ( who was the messiest) stepping back all you can do to be able to enjoy. I also learned a dollar worked wonders on clean up.

  6. i admire your patience – i can see this scene in my head and i think that if this were me i would be freaking out over the mess – i give you a huge gold star for letting them play and be inventive with the christmas cookies

  7. It bugs me to no end when a friend of mine keeps her child absurdly-perfectly clean (to the point that she won’t allow her to feed herself.) I worry that being bothered by how messy my child is getting could get in the way of making a lasting memory with them, and I don’t want that. We have washing machines and bathtubs for a reason.

    Oh, and gingerbread men are a must this time of year! Great post as always!


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