What makes Tradition Cookies special? Not the strongly guarded family recipes. Not the exacting ingredients. It’s the sharing.

The tradition started in 1800s Czechoslovakia. (Cue Topol’s rendition of “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”) Every year in early December, the whole family gathered to bake the Tradition Cookies they gave as gifts. The men were tasked with gathering and cracking hazelnuts. The young children turned the grinder to mince the nutmeat. The matriarch coordinated the entire process. She delegated sparingly and guided each step to unfailing perfection.

It would typically take decades of watching and doing simple tasks before a daughter was allowed to prepare the dough. There is a skill, an art, to making the perfect dough. It can’t be written down or easily taught.

There are so many tiny details to note and adjustments to make. Is the dough too dry, too soft? What is the weather? Do the ingredients differ from what was available last year? Is the oven temperature constant? Tradition Cookies were serious gift giving.

There is little record of what happened to Tradition Cookies during wartimes. Families were split and supplies limited. Survivors didn’t speak of those hardships.

What is known is that Tradition Cookies crossed the Atlantic after World War II, when Army Lt. Godfrey Baumgartner brought his young bride, Erika, to the United States. Serious adjustments had to be made to the recipes. Ingredients in America were different. Items that were grown or gathered in the old country now had to be purchased. Some ingredients were not available, so substitutes had to be found.

Measurements, ovens, weather – all required recipe changes. Changes were tested and painstakingly annotated.

In 1965 Tradition Cookies were brought to Casco, Maine. Adjustments continued over the years. Egg sizes changed, so did the recipes. Erika Baumgartner’s daughter, Carol Dunham, remembers a time in the 1980s when the preferred brand of butter was no longer available. Her mother spent days testing to find a substitute. Now, 36 years later, it is still the only brand Carol uses.

It is increasingly more difficult to find the exact ingredients. Carol uses online specialty shops and drives miles for items not found locally. Each year she buys over 20 pounds each of flour, confectionery sugar and butter. This is in addition to dozens of eggs and pounds of sugar, nuts and chocolate.

Recipes change and so do traditions. Carol remembers a time when no cookie was eaten before Christmas Eve, as cheating jinxed the cookies and made them burn. Today, no cookie is eaten until all the baking is done.

Another tradition changed when Carol moved to Standish in 1995. With no daughters to carry on the tradition, Carol invited her new neighbor, Karen Bradford, over to help. Though Carol has since moved to Lyman, they still meet the day after Thanksgiving to start baking over 300 dozen Tradition Cookies. Oh, one tradition that hasn’t changed: Karen has yet to make the dough!

— Special to the Telegram