If there were such a thing as a Cookie Santa Claus, Jeanette Wotherspoon would be that person.
The 84-year-old dynamo baked and gave away more than 14,000 cookies last Christmas.
“I thought it was so obscene, but I am sure we have surpassed that,” she says, talking about the 2018 count. “I keep saying every year I am not doing it anymore. This is supposed to be the grand finale, but we’ll see.”
Her daughter Rebecca thought last year was the end of the cookie extravaganza tradition.
“I said ‘OK, Mom, let’s do something smaller, invite a few people over for cookies’ and Mom said, ‘Oh no, when I get back from China, we are going to bake,’” Rebecca says, who is a pediatrician in Springfield.
And bake they did.
Starting on Oct. 1, Rebecca prepped dough every night. On weekends, the duo would bake using Jeanette’s three ovens (due to this tradition, she has installed three ovens in multiple houses).
The finished cookies were stored in two freezers in the garage, then the rest were stashed in some of her daughter’s freezers.
And on Dec. 15, they tallied this year’s cookie count and it was a record breaker: 15,423 cookies, or 1,285 dozen.
If you’re thinking, “I don’t even know enough people to give that many cookies to,” well, Jeanette doesn’t either. Which is why she drives around with cups of cookies in her car, rolls down her window and hands them out to strangers.
“That is the joy of making them, is to share them,” Jeanette says.
This great-grandma hauls a “trunk load” to Crocker, a town where she lived for years, and parcels out the goodies to old friends.
Once you are on her cookie list, you never get taken off.
Twenty-two family members gathered for the annual Wotherspoon Christmas Cookie Extravaganza (donning shirts with the aforementioned slogan) and helped package the treats.
“Every year we have a new shirt made up and on the back is one of Mother’s cookies,” says Rebecca.
Various assembly lines were organized in the garage, the dining room, the living room. Thousands of cookies were stacked and spread out, ready to be wrapped up. It was a child’s (or cookie lover’s) dream.
The extravaganza is an open house for family and friends who come and share in the sugary joy.
This year was extra special because Jeanette’s three siblings were all there to help, which was the first time in nearly 25 years they had all been together. Family members came from Washington state, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and all over Missouri to participate.
“This is about family and fellowship,” says Jim Montgomery, her 86-year-old brother, who still works full time as a veterinarian. “This would be hard to give up. I love my sister. Jeanette outdoes herself every year.”
Sharing cookies is a tradition that started decades ago, says daughter Barbara Wotherspoon, a local OB-GYN.
Growing up, they were poor, and her mother had $200 a month to feed her family of six children — four daughters and two sons. Jeanette canned and planned all year so she could use the $200 of grocery money in December to bake cookies.
The Wotherspoon clan dressed as elves and delivered the goodies to shut-ins, homeless people, school staff, friends and strangers. It was their Christmas tradition — more important than gifts.
The only year Jeanette did not bake was the year she lost her husband of 52 years, Robert Wotherspoon.
The tradition got bigger and bigger every year, family members echoed.
Jeanette spends more than $1,000 on flour, sugar and chocolate. It’s her gift to loved ones, although she says it would be less expensive if she just gave them money.
“But then what would I do?” she asked.
On Oct. 1, the baking commences and continues until Dec. 1, when she shifts to making candies and fudge. Jeanette uses homemade caramel, and every batch takes 35 minutes, so it’s pretty time-consuming. The caramel is used to craft homemade turtles and her popular caramel-covered pretzel sticks.
The candy is made fresh because it doesn’t freeze well. She also makes 16 large pans of fudge and cuts them into squares to share.
There are staples every year, like her grandma’s Scottish shortbread recipe. Jeanette is partial to the classics, like chocolate chip cookies, but daughter Rebecca often helps craft fancier creations and likes to experiment with new recipes.
They baked 55 varieties this year.
But the most special cookie of all is the Santa Claus crafted from a cookie cutter bought in 1956, when Jeanette and her husband homesteaded in Alaska.
“Every time I press it, I think it’s going to crack, but it hasn’t,” says Jeannette.
That Santa cookie cutter was used to bake cookies for her children and all their classmates, teachers, bus drivers and more, says Barbara. Homemade white icing was piped onto each to create Santa’s beard and accents on his hat.
Granddaughter Jaime Patrick, an RN in Hot Springs, Arkansas, says that specific cookie was reserved for Santa every Christmas Eve.
“That was the only cookie we put out for Santa,” she says.
Seventh-grader Sydney Nelson has learned a lot from her grandma. Recently, during a Family and Consumer Science class at her school in St. Louis, they baked chocolate chip cookies and Nelson was a pro. The girls and boys divided into teams and when she looked over to the boys’ pan, the cookies were the size of your palm.
“I was like no, no, no, no, no,” Nelson says, shaking her finger. “You can divide these into fourths. I told them I go to my grandma’s every year and we make 900 dozen.”
For the Wotherspoon family, giving out cookies is all they’ve ever known, says Barbara.
“This is what we do,” says Jeanette. “My minister says I have a cookie ministry, and I sort of like that.”