As surely as the first robin bouncing about on the lawn serves as notice of spring, the appearance of candied fruit in the food stores serves as warning of Christmas.
Tis, if not the season to be merry, the season to get ready to be: time to set aside a day or two for baking Christmas cookies, getting the plum pudding ready for its month-long rum bath, stringing cranberries and sticking together popcorn balls. Then, when the season rushes in, it won't run right over you.
In the flurry of getting ready for Christmas, it's nice to have a little help from your friends. That way you get to celebrate twice -- once in the making and once in the taking.
Mixing up dough and cutting out cookies may not strain the hand of a chef, but by the time the sixth tray of gingerbread men has emerged from the oven, the solitary baker has usually descended to simply drawing on a smile and sticking in raisin-bit eyes.
But, with a collection of pastry tubes, bowls of colored icing and the help of creative friends, who knows what this season's gingerbread folk will turn up wearing, how the star-shaped butter cookies will glitter, or what ornaments will appear on the golden brown Christmas trees.
Having lots and lots of Christmas cookies means that not only can you offer them for eating, you can use them as holiday place cards, drawing them to look like your friends (well, sort of).
Or you can poke a hole in the top with a toothpick before baking them, and then string them with yarn to hang on the Christmas tree.
I did that each year until I noticed that all the little gingerbread men and gingerbread deer and gingerbread pigs looked like Civil War casualties. My dog had taken to munching off an arm or leg whenever she got hungry. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea, if you have a shorter or better-trained dog.
To keep the cookies fresh until you need them, they should be kept in airtight tins (available at most hardware and department stores), and it probably wouldn't hurt to bag them in plastic first.
If you're not feeling too strapped for cash, you could fancy up your baking session with springerle molds, those carved wooden blocks that leave such pretty designs on cookies. The new Williams-Sonoma store at Mazza Galleries, 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, has them at prices ranging from $3.75 to $20, plus a handsome shortbread mold for $28 and a carved roller for $8.
The store also is carrying cans of prepared thin- or thick-cut Seville oranges to use in making marmalade, a nice filling for Christmas cookies. The tins, at $4.50, make 6 pounds of marmalade, which ought to be enough for even the most diligent Christmas elf.