All photos/art by Heath Robbins
Sometime around Thanksgiving, Mary Bevilacqua starts thinking about the Exchange. She decides whom she’ll invite and sends out invitations. She makes up the menu for the meal, and then, most important, she wonders what the cookie will be this year: Lemon snowballs? Nutmeg logs? Chocolate-peppermint bars?
The Wellesley Cookie Exchange has been part of Mary’s life for the past 36 years. She got the idea from an article she read in an old Family Circle magazine about a woman who, every Christmas, invited friends over for a cookie swap. She and a friend, Laurel Gabel, started looking for new ideas. “We just went with it,” Mary says, sitting in her same house, in her same living room where, during one mid-December gathering — for brunch, lunch, tea, or dinner — each year, Christmas cookie mayhem breaks out.
The living room fills with trays and platters and cake stands covered in butter horns, gingerbread boys, and fragrant crescents — every conceivable round, bar, or log dusted, laced, sparkled, twisted, crisscrossed, or snowflaked. And for those few winter hours, they’re the sole focus for some 40 or so women, gaga over cookies.
“Everyone brings a few dozen cookies from their new favorite recipes, and they pass them around, and everyone takes enough so that when they leave, they have a great new assortment, plus a lot of new recipes,” Mary explains. “In one fun afternoon or evening, we’ve done our Christmas baking.” Mary often arranges a variety of cookies on pretty plates, stashes them in the freezer, and when the doorbell rings, she’s ready to entertain throughout the season.
As the years passed, Laurel moved away, Mary’s four children grew up, and Mary retired from her nursing career. But no matter what, at Christmas, like a regular heartbeat, the Exchange took place. At the appointed time, through snowstorms or across icy walks, friends bearing this year’s recipes and the yields of their morning bakefests made their way to Mary’s door. And over the years, her Christmas cookie recipe file has bulged beyond reason and her reputation has spread: Mary is the undisputed Wellesley cookie guru.
“That’s our holiday tradition,” Mary’s daughter Kristen Weiss says. “Once the Christmas season begins, it’s time for the cookie exchange.” She and her sister, Ann Flanigan, who are both raising families of their own now in Wellesley, grew up with the Exchange, and both host their own exchanges now, though their favorite cookies sound a bit more contemporary: chocolate rads, for instance.
They’ve learned a lot from their mom — good advice such as “Always bake extras — someone’s bound to have a disaster.” Could be a burned batch, a tinful dropped in the driveway, or a sneak attack by a hungry teenager who couldn’t resist. Mary long ago figured out how to squelch such a possibility in her own house: She locks the cookies in the trunk of her car until the Exchange party begins.
With the cookies come the stories. “While we pass them around, everyone gets the chance to tell the story of their cookies,” Mary says. “Whether it’s where she got the recipe or what she forgot to put in when she made them, there’s always a story.” Her favorite? “Lemon-coconut meltaways. Oooh, they really do!”
Click here for tips for starting your own holiday cookie swap.