Even before Julie Perry showed up to Judy Verdine’s house last week for an annual Christmas cookie exchange party they have with a group of friends, every other woman there knew what kind of cookie Perry would bring — peppermint meringues.
“Only one of us has brought the same cookie every year,” said Verdine, with a grin.
Perry blushed, but even as her friends teased her, they agreed they would want it no other way. They love her peppermint meringues, and a Christmas without them wouldn’t feel the same.
After 35 years, that’s understandable.
That’s how long these Washington friends have been holding their annual cookie exchange.
It all started with a magazine article. At least, that’s what those who were around in the beginning can best recall.
This was back around Christmastime 1977.
The article outlined how to hold a Christmas cookie exchange.
“Let’s do it!” one woman exclaimed to a few friends.
So they spoke to a few more friends, who spoke to a few more, and soon enough a date had been set and a guest list decided.
The plan was simple — 12 women were invited and each woman would bake and bring 12 dozen of the same cookie to exchange with the friends.
The result — each woman left the gathering with a variety of 12 dozen cookies.
That’s a lot of cookies, of course, but with young children and husbands at home, the stockpile didn’t last beyond the holiday.
The next year the women decided to exchange cookies again, and so a tradition was set.
Not all of the original friends who were there in 1977 are still participating. Only five of the core group remain — Verdine, Perry, Suzon Pogue, Bonnie Eckelkamp and Jane Cowan.
But even the newcomers aren’t so new anymore.
“Michele (Jones) is our newest, and she’s been coming for 10 years,” Verdine remarked.
Another friend, Kathy Winters, had to drop out when she moved away years ago, but has since moved back — and at a time when there happened to be an opening at the exchange table.
(Other friends in the group are Sharon Fenner, Evelyn Hill, Marilyn Miller, Joyce Wessels and Carol Crane.)
Twelve ladies is a good limit, the group agreed, and not just because that’s how many can fit around the dining room table. This gathering is as much about conversations and catchingup (maybe more so), as it is about Christmas cookies, so too many women can complicate that.
Also, it may sound odd, but a cookie exchange is not a welcome holiday addition for everyone, the women have found.
As openings have come up at the table, the women have extended invitations to new friends, only to have them come for a year or two before bowing out.
“It’s not really hard to do, but you do have to plan ahead,” Fenner commented.
That’s not hard for her. She looks like a planner.
“Sharon’s the keeper of the roll,” Verdine remarked, noting Fenner keeps a list of which women have hosted the exchange to know whose house they’ll be at next.
“I’d say around Thanksgiving or maybe Dec. 1 I start thinking about recipes and what cookie I want to bring,” Fenner said.
But because each woman brings six dozen of the same cookie, the making and baking process should be fairly simple, the women agreed.
Few Details Have Changed
Over the years, some details of the exchange have been tweaked, partially to streamline the work that goes into the event, but also to reduce the impact on the women’s waistlines.
“We cut it down to making six dozen cookies and each woman leaves with half a dozen of 12 varieties,” said Eckelkamp.
“We did that once our children were all grown and realized we were the ones eating all of the cookies,” she said, laughing.
The timing of the event has moved around a bit too, but the last 10 years or so the women have been meeting mid-afternoon. Originally it was to accommodate a couple of teachers in the group, but with most of the women now retired (or able to flex their work hours around the gathering), the women say they like the midday party.
It’s typically always held on the second Thursday of December, though — so the women can know in advance and work their calendars around it.
Also, the hostess no longer prepares any food for the group to nosh on. Rather, they each bring an extra half-dozen of their cookies to share with the group that day.
Being hostess does come with a little bit of prep work though, said Verdine, who was hostess this year.
The hostess gives every guest an ornament or some sort of favor, and she has to set the table.
Verdine laid out her holiday linens, Christmas tree plates and special glasses to bring some elegance to the gathering.
For their part the women come with their cookies already separated into 12 half-dozen groupings and large baskets to carry out their cookie haul.
The women said they used to bring copies of their cookie recipe with them, but that eventually fell by the wayside.
“It’s a social thing, really,” Verdine reiterated.
“We see each other individually throughout the year, but we never get together as a group like this, except at Christmas,” she said.
Eckelkamp said her daughter and daughter-in-law were going to hold their first friends cookie exchange this year, no doubt inspired by the fun they’ve watched her have for so many years.