Jean Miller has thought about stopping.
Christmas would roll around in recent years, and she would think: Was it time to quit baking the cookies?
It was tempting. For decades, she had devoted days to making hundreds of edible ornaments, classic Yuletide shapes decorated with an egg white mixture, hand-tinted granulated sugar and paintbrushes.
Friends loved them. Her family treasured them. But were they still worth the trouble?
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She would mull it over, but not for long. The cookies always pulled her back into her College Township kitchen.
“They’re a part of me,” she said. “For Christmas, I just can’t not make them.”
At 87, Miller recently finished her latest holiday batches, marking the 65th year her sugary masterpieces end up between layers of wax paper, waiting to impress and delight. The most ornate, her Santa heads, sport coconut flake beards, white icing eyebrows and a flesh-colored face complete with rosy cheeks.
Her other cookies also are visual treats. Snowmen feature bright hats, scarves and mittens, as well as eyes and mouths of black licorice rope snipped into tiny segments.
Azure drums and golden trumpets peek from red stockings. Blonde and brunette angels pray in baby blue and mocha gowns.
They’re shapes Miller has been making since 1949, her first Christmas married to her late husband, John. The cookies also are the same ones that tormented three children growing up in a house on Oneida Street in State College.
Sue Younkin, Robin Burman and their brother, Tom Miller, could give full tins to classmates and other friends, as their mother intended. But back home, the house rules were ironclad: no eating until after Christmas Eve dinner, their family’s custom.
Nobody dared steal a Santa or snowman beforehand.
“Even as a juvenile delinquent,” wrote Tom Miller in jest, “I had a sense that doing that would spoil something special.”
Burman’s husband, during his first Christmas in the Miller household 35 years ago, didn’t get the word. All he knew was the cookies looked scrumptious. He happily bit off an angel’s head in front of his mother-in-law.
“Her jaw just dropped to her ankles,” Burman said.
The marriage survived.
Miller got her start when she mailed a coupon from a shortening can and 50 cents for the Aunt Chick’s Merry Xmas Cookie Cutters set of four red, plastic cutters — a Santa, stocking, tree and star — plus baking instructions and decorating tips.
She still has two of the first cutters, the tree and stocking, and the original box. Over the years, she bought replacements and added other shapes. She also bought identical sets from the same company for her children.
Each December for a few days, a magical aroma would fill the Millers’ home. Sheets of cookies, about 25 to a batch, emerged from the oven to cool, then were spread across the dining room table for decorating.
The children helped — to a point. They cut raisins in quarters for eyes and buttons, pressed them into place, brushed off loose sugar between painting stages and cleaned air holes in cutters with toothpicks. But they knew they played a supporting role.
This was their mother’s show.
“It was an anticipated event,” Younkin said. “It was a special time.”
Though Miller has changed designs and made tweaks — the Santa faces used to be white; licorice snippets and confectionery dots replaced raisins — her basic routine has endured.
She makes her own dough, flouring it and the cutters for smooth transfers to baking sheets. These days, she swears by Wondra flour.
After the baking, she uses powdered egg white mixed with water as an adhesive, painting it with a No. 6 brush. With a spoon, she applies sugar crystals tinted with food coloring to the right hue.
She works one color at a time: all the red elements, for instance, moving back and forth among the Santas, stockings and snowmen. Once segments dry, she brushes off loose crystals, and it’s on to the next color.
To give her snowmen a frosty appearance, she spreads a mixture of regular sugar and edible sparkles.
“I let them dry and I don’t brush them at all,” she said. “They’re been sitting in the snow after all.”
From start to finish, her cookie batches can take five days.
“We learned patience,” Younkin said of her childhood.
Some Christmases, Miller baked as many as 350 cookies. She made about a third of that this year, and she no longer creates elaborate gingerbread house winter landscapes. She and her husband used to make one annually, with such features as ponds made from liquified blue candy and split-rail fences formed from pretzel sticks.
But her cookie commitment hasn’t wavered. Neighbors may help with the laborious baking and cooling, her concession to age, but that’s it.
“I do the decorating,” Miller said.
Her cookies have been mailed across the country. They pleased Younkin’s students when she was a local teacher.
Plenty still go to friends and neighbors. Most of the time, the treats disappear in quick fashion, but some recipients can’t bear to destroy art. Miller recalled one boy stashed his cookies in the freezer to preserve them.
Some go further, embalming them with a clear, protective coating.
Miller understands; she even made two Santas with holes for a friend this year so they can become ornaments. That’s all well and good, but it’s missing the point. As lovely as they are, her cookies are meant to be enjoyed with a nibble here, a bite there, perhaps between sips of milk or eggnog.
Her two great-granddaughters, the older half of her great-grandchildren, look forward to them. So do her grown children. Burman and Younkin can’t wait to eat their respective favorites, the Santas and angels, though they’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve at their mother’s house as usual.
Like a certain cookie artist herself, that’s not changing.