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Sweet Treats! The Forgotten Art of the Cookie Exchange

In the busy month of December, it’s easy to lose sight of the reason for the season. Hosting an old-fashioned cookie exchange offers a chance to slow down and create a new tradition that involves food, family and friends - three ingredients that are essential for a memorable holiday season.

It’s why your parents and grandparents used to hold holiday cookie exchanges and why these parties continue to be a wonderful experience for families today. This year, why not try setting aside an afternoon to savor the sensory elements of the holiday season that you and your friends may rush by or dismiss on more chaotic days?

The invitations

Inviting eight to 10 families is usually the ideal number. That’s enough people to make it feel like a party but not so many that you’re forced to run around rather than spending time with your guests.

Don’t be tempted to resort to email or flier-style invites. Sit down with your children and design a unique homemade invitation to mail to your guests. Invitations should include the date, time, location and, most importantly, the instructions for the baker. Specify how many cookies are needed, if you want a recipe card with them (or a list of ingredients) and if they should be presented in a certain way.


Try to have your Christmas tree up and decorated for your party. Make a festive punch with cranberry juice, gingerale, sherbet and an ice ring. Or go online and find a recipe that looks pretty and will taste good.

Choose an eclectic selection of music. Play Dominic the Donkey immediately after Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Alvin and the Chipmunks followed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The holidays are a great time to be inclusive and this way, you won’t leave out anyone’s favorite carol or song!


Use your party as an excuse to dress up! Get out your holiday bling; that cute reindeer pin with the flashing red nose, the snowflake necklace or the poinsettia earrings. Wear red, green or something sparkly - whatever it is that will get you in the mood and make sure your kids do the same. For parents of young children who seem to live in sweatpants and grubby T-shirts, it can be a novelty and a pleasure to put on fancy party clothes. Festive, fun and frivolous are the words of the day!

The cookies

No cutting corners here! Resist the temptation of paper plates, cookie mixes, frozen dough or canned icing! Your cookie exchange offering should be something you spend time creating because the people you’re exchanging with mean something to you, and you want to show them just how special they are. Every December, my friend Heidi makes her ribbon cookies, a recipe she got from her aunt, which takes an incredible amount of time (two days) and patience, and results in a multi-colored confection that would make even Martha Stewart swoon!

Why is it so important to her to carry on this 20-year tradition, no matter how busy she is? “It’s a labor of love,” she explains. “You can’t buy a cookie this good. I think it’s because I’m so happy when I’m making them, thinking about the pleasure they’ll bring to my family and friends. My ribbon cookies show how much I care for the people I’m baking for.”

Tell guests not to be daunted by the invitation’s request for six to eight dozen cookies. Once they start baking, there’s really no difference between making two- and six-dozen treats. Make it a hands-on project with your kids and it will seem like less of a chore. You can also make extra cookies to freeze for any impromptu gatherings you get invited to in December or a quick and easy teacher or hostess gift. Don’t forget to let people know if there are nuts or other potential allergens in your recipe.

The day of the party

Put your kids in charge of answering the door, welcoming each guest as they arrive and taking their coats. Let them show their friends where to go, and show the grownups where to put their cookies. This not only takes some of the pressure off of you, it’s also a great lesson in hospitality for your children.

For grown-ups

Social time - Depending on the time of day, serving a few bottles of nice wine (ones with holiday-themed labels are especially popular) and some easy but elegant snacks is a nice touch. Vegetable plates with dip, a few fancy cheeses (Gouda has that lovely red rim and there are ones with sage or dill that are ‘Grinch’ green), and Chex Party Mix are always popular with both adults and kids.

If you prefer non-alcoholic beverages, serve mulled cider or peppermint tea. You and your friends can trade tips about gifts, how to deal with in-laws and what to serve Christmas day. If you’re lucky, the kids will be occupied with the activities below and you may actually be able to finish a sentence or two!

For kids

Container decorating station - Have inexpensive cookie tins or foil pans available for each family to take their cookies home in, along with holiday ribbons, bows, stickers and any other fun decorating items. Don’t forget felt markers (red and green, of course!) to write each family’s name on their receptacle. As each family arrives, send the children to the table to create the perfect cookie holder.

Cookie decorating station - Set up another area (or quickly clear the first one) where kids can ice and decorate plain sugar cookies or gingerbread men and women for everyone to snack on after the exchange. (Otherwise, the fancy cookies may get eaten before people even leave the party!) Be sure to have plenty of plastic knives, colored icing and sprinkles handy. Give the kids some nice holiday plates to arrange their cookies on so they look as lovely as their parents’ offerings. If you have the stamina for a more detailed project, gingerbread houses can also be entertaining for kids to create, and are a nice party favor for the young guests to take home.

For everyone

Invite all guests, large and small, to gather around the table where the plates of cookies await them. Have each family explain why they brought their cookies and what they mean to them. This is a surprisingly meaningful experience and often gives you a glimpse of your friends past lives that might surprise and delight you. Then, take your containers and go around the table, choosing a specified number of cookies from each plate. (Note: Be sure to have a roll of wax paper or plastic wrap on hand in case the cookies need to be layered in the take-home containers.)

A final tip

Remove all pets for the duration of the party. A dog stealing a plate of cookies when no one is looking might make an amusing anecdote, but the aftereffects will not. No one needs an extra mess to clean up after a busy day of hostessing! However, planned sharing is great. Make a few extra plates of cookies, wrap them up nicely and have guests volunteer to take them to local soup kitchens, food pantries or other charitable organizations. Sharing is an important part of the holiday season, and this is a wonderful way to show kids that they can give to others who are having a tough time; a gift from the heart.

Sue is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to family magazines. Contact her at

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