December in the Shenandoah mountains is marked by gray forests: once lush and vibrant but now brown and bare, revealing the bound of a white-tailed deer and the scamper of a camouflaged hare. Through the window, I watch the silhouettes of walnut trees sway in the cold wind. This is a landscape and town stripped of green - a skeleton of our lives. This is December.
My toes are numb against the hardwood floor. All is quiet, for the rest of the world is fast asleep underneath layers of the star-studded sky. The lonesome moon pierces through the small windows, casting a pearlescent glow on the dark hallway. No clouds mask the luminous stars. As I stare up through the glass, I wish for snow to dust the fields and cover the roofs like powdered sugar - for the world to be covered in a floury blanket. I lay down, close my eyes, and fall into a dreamless sleep.
I rush downstairs, my eyes groggy in the bright, pale light. I reach the phone receiver and press the stubborn plastic button. You have one new message… the robotic voice drones. I listen once. Twice. My lips break into a smile. No school today! I rush to the window and stare at the snowflakes drifting in the breeze, gently landing on the white-washed world. I sigh, content. No one else is awake, and I have the Tuesday morning all to myself. I turn around, then reach down into the pantry, pulling out the timeworn recipe notebook.
December is the start of baking season; it is when my family spends time in the kitchen all together, which is rare otherwise. Baking brings us together. My December is filled with floury counters and floors, the oven’s quiet heat, our hearty laughter, and the scent of ginger and cloves.
Baking will always hold a special place in my heart. As a young child, I spent hours flipping through my mom’s ancient recipe books, which hid in a forgotten bookshelf corner. Now, I rifle through the pantry, picking up the cocoa and baking powder. My arms hold the containers against my chest as I sort through the clinking jars and cans. My hands grasp the tiny bottle of vanilla extract and the aluminum tin of brown sugar, filled with saccharine lumps perfect for popping into your mouth and letting the caramel flavor melt on your tongue. I balance the sticks of cold butter, the little box of salt, and the plastic cylinders of spices and slowly make my way to the kitchen counter.
For many, December is a month to set goals for the new year and recognize mistakes and bad habits. But this month teaches me that learning from mistakes should be for more than just 31 days; while self-improvement and goals are important, December is also a time for me to enjoy the natural pass of another tiring, laugher-filled, painful-beautiful year. As we continue to think about our futures, we often forget to enjoy the present; this month of baking helps me live in the moment.
The whisk clangs against the large, stainless steel mixing bowl, and flour lines the dark green, vinyl counters. Many disasters have occurred here but also many triumphs, from burnt cakes to fragile, decadent shortbread. I whip the butter into the brown sugar and sift in the flour almost systematically, watching the pale dust fall through the air like the powdered sugar snow beyond. I knead, mix, and stir, only stopping to wipe the flour off of my face and blow it off of my powdered sleeves. I grin, for these are my battle scars; these are the marks of a baker - a creator.
I tap the baking pan against stove twice, then push it into the warmth of the oven. Waiting is always the hardest part. To distract myself, I rinse the bowl and spoons, letting the warm tap water surround my hands and drip between my fingers.
During the month of December, I reflect deeply on my life, from my accomplishments and mistakes to my motivations and goals, both for the passing year and in preparation for the next. Just like with the bare walnut trees, December strips away my appearance, leaving only my bones: my dreams and aspirations, my goals and shortcomings, my heritage and future destinations. Ultimately, December allows me to recognize my character within.
This December, as school and home life become more demanding, I hope to form a focus for the upcoming year. This month will mean reflecting on my personal experiences and choosing my purpose.
The sweet chocolate-and-butter scent wafts out of the oven and into the crisp air as I dry the last bowl and set the damp towel to dry. I exhale as I sit down and wrap a blanket around myself. And there I stay, a square of the rich coffee cake in one hand and a mug of hot tea in the other. The bites are bittersweet; the sips leave trails of warmth down into my core. I sigh, content, and watch the powdered sugar snow falling outside through the window pane.
December is the end of something long and the start of something fresh, all tied together with the whisper of the cold wind as it weaves through the bare tree branches and gray mountains. It is the ribbon wrapped around the year that ties the box of cookies together into a messy-perfect bow. December is a dazzling glacier, swirling with ambition, melancholy, and the hope of a new year. It is an icy phoenix, born from the forest's ashes - a new year, a new life, year and year again.
As the rest of the universe stirs from its sleep, the trees rustle, and I can hear my family’s footsteps upstairs. I smile one last time at the powdered sugar snow on the other side of the glass, and I know I can’t wait for the world to enjoy this December confection with me.