Holiday baking: a cherished part of childhood

Children are the original traditionalists. Especially when it comes to the holidays, a child insists that the celebration repeat the pattern of ''last year ,'' precisely. The rediscovery of each sparkling, decorative treasure, the renewal of every cherished custom seems to inspire recognition of the younger person he or she was in Christmas Past, and reaffirms the now more grown-up self of Christmas Present.

For parents, too, holiday traditions are precious links with their own long agos.

Holiday cookie baking and candy making is a comfortable old custom that you may have anticipated year after year. But whether or not it was part of your own childhood, your children will cherish it now. At our house this festive project has been shared with our daughter - and often with her younger brother as well.

Here are some things we have learned:

If this is to be a genuine family project, it must not be too involved. Choose recipes that are fun, familiar, uncomplicated. We usually include Scottish shortbread, with an affectionate nod to my maternal grandfather. In addition to past favorites, we try to add at least one new recipe each year.

Children revel in every aspect of this undertaking, starting with the excitement of searching the supermarket shelves. Find a time when stores aren't too crowded and confusing, then let them help with the selection of required ingredients.

Plan cookie-baking sessions realistically. One batch of cookies or candies - even part of one batch - per session may be enough for the nursery and early grade-school set. Pick an hour when everyone is rested, fresh, and feeling cooperative; then relax and have fun together.

Dough preparation can be an impatient task for little ones. It works well if you do the initial measuring and mixing yourself. You'll have plenty of enthusiastic help with shelling, chopping, mixing, rolling, beating, frosting, and decorating.

At last that first full cookie sheet has been tucked in to bake. The air in the kitchen hangs heavy with long-awaited aromas. And when you slide those warm sweets from the oven, you join generations of grandmothers in continuing a cherished tradition.

In addition to welcoming guests with savory treats, these confections may be used as decorations and gifts. Holiday-sugared cutouts and gingerbread boys can be hung on the Christmas tree as inexpensive, expendable ornaments for children to enjoy without fuss and to share with their friends. Our long-distance relatives always love to receive an attractive container stuffed with an assortment of nonperishable seasonal goodies. We include recipes and any details about the young baker(s) who helped.

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