Come Christmas, I’ll be polishing the silver carafe again, and getting out the chocolate-stained, butter-smeared, slightly tattered recipe cards for holiday baking.

Forty years ago Sue and I were new neighbors and got to know each other when our little daughters began to roam the half block between our houses. Descended from hardy Scandinavian stock, we had, between us, recipes for krumkake, rosettes, Berliner kranze, pecan tassies, thumbprints, pinwheels, Russian teacakes, mint brownies, old-fashioned fudge, two kinds of “Grandma’s sugar cookies,” and more than a few others, and we made them all, some in double batches.

Elastic waistbands were not yet common in our age group, so by New Year’s Eve we struggled to zip our slacks and got snarly when our husbands whined about dessert: “Christmas cookies again?” So we initiated the first open house to use up the Christmas cookies.

In 1973 we invited the women we knew in the neighborhood—most of them, like us, mothers of preschoolers. We knew the mothers of the teenagers who babysat for us, so we invited them too. And we invited our elderly neighbors who indulged our children riding Big Wheels over their lawns.

We scheduled the party the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when, we reasoned, mothers needed a break from their children. Our written invitations flatly stated, “MOMS ONLY.”

Sue’s house was bigger, so that was the gathering place. I, however, had the fine china and the thirty-six-cup percolator, which has yet to be used for anything but brewing our secret cider. The day of the event I loaded up my kids’ plastic toboggan with Grandma’s antique dishes and about a dozen and a half Tupperware containers of cookies and hauled everything down the snowy street to Sue’s house. While one of those trusty teenagers babysat our four collective children at my place, we arranged Sue’s table with our sweet delicacies, dainty cocktail napkins, and the silver and glass carafe, a wedding gift that had raised the eyebrows of a bridegroom who would have preferred steak knives.

Our friends arrived, filled their plates, and chattered like a flock of house finches at a new bird feeder. Sue and I refilled cookie trays, poured our special brew from the elegant carafe, and glowed in the success of our hostessing adventure.

At twilight, sometime after the official end of the soiree, our friends tottered to the porch, pulled on their boots, and leaned on each other as they made their way to their homes along the street.

We had so much fun that we decided to do it again, and again, and again. Before long we were inviting all the women of the neighborhood, not just those we knew. Exactly when the Neighborhood Ladies’ Open House became a tradition, we aren’t quite sure.

Kaycee Torkelson, Janet’s niece, helps out  at the Neighborhood Ladies Annual Open House. (Photo courtesy Janet Lunder Hanafin)
Kaycee Torkelson, Janet’s niece, helps out
at the Neighborhood Ladies Annual Open House. (Photo courtesy Janet Lunder Hanafin)
Not much has changed in forty years. When Sue and I, and most of our neighbors, went back to work, we started the party later in the afternoon and added cheese and crackers for our friends who came straight from the office and needed something “substantial” before getting their sugar fix. Sue, herself, moved away twenty years ago, so the party is now at my house, but she still brings her share of the cookies.

We invite the women who have left the neighborhood, and occasionally they come back to renew friendships and show off pictures of their grandchildren. Our own daughters and their friends grew up, and we began inviting them, and the young women who babysat for us four decades ago, to join the fun. They have children of their own, but they don’t bring them. They know the rules.

“How long are you going to keep doing this?” the younger women ask. We don’t have an answer. We still love baking cookies. We still love the sound of conversation and laughter with the accompaniment of soft Christmas music. We still love setting the table with Grandma’s dishes and that beautiful carafe.

But these days we put a little less wine in the cider.


Janet Lunder Hanafin grew up on a South Dakota farm. Transplanted to Saint Paul for her college years, her roots have grown deep and she has written for a number of local publications. She and her husband have two grown children and three grandchildren (all above average) and enjoy the companionship of two very fine cats.

Tagged: Christmas, food