When the dust from the powdered sugar finally settled -- more than 20 pounds of it -- the Hughes family was surrounded. The scene in their Vienna kitchen was not for the faint of heart or, for that matter, the calorie-conscious. More than 2,000 Christmas cookies covered every available surface, including the washer and dryer.
They came in every shape and size, from the traditional Santa head, Christmas tree and candy cane to the more exotic: panda bears flourishing a stalk of green bamboo, bare feet with fire engine red toenails and gloriously insane gnomes straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien. And new this year: a Volkswagen Beetle cookie with a Christmas tree piped in green frosting on the roof. The tree was an afterthought; the cookie, a smash hit.
"We have to get our cookies. We get a little crazy," said Janet Hughes, 60, in something of an understatement.
Baking cookies and other sweets is a holiday ritual in thousands of households this time of year. But the Hughes family takes it to a higher level, renting tables and bringing together dozens of relatives and friends for what they call "Cookie Day." This year, it began Saturday morning and ended early Sunday.
"It is a frosting/sugar/jimmie/red hot/chocolate chip extravaganza," said Hughes's daughter, Chrissy Offutt, 34, of Los Angeles, who flies in for the decorating weekend and again for the Christmas holiday. "You know those cookies you see at Starbucks? Forget about it. Ours are gorgeous."
The tradition started with Hughes, who has been making and decorating cookies every Christmas since she was a child in Springfield, Mo. When she married her first husband more than 30 years ago, Hughes had only two cookie cutters. Now she has accumulated more than 50 cookie shapes as well as a "step combination" family of seven children and seven grandchildren, most of whom help with the decorating.
Hughes and her second husband, Jack, have hosted the pre-Christmas cookie free-for-all for more than 10 years, most recently in their nine-room Colonial-style home on Higdon Drive.
"He said when he married me, he didn't know about Cookie Day," joked Hughes, festive in a red-striped apron that matched those of the other decorator "elves" hard at work in her kitchen. She confessed to enjoying the decorating much more than the baking.
On Saturday, she was in her element, a smiling cookie matriarch with a slight southwest Missouri drawl.
The cookies were baked around Thanksgiving. Hughes and three of her stepdaughters each spent about two days making batter and another three baking ginger, sugar and molasses cookies. Each ended up with about 500 cookies, which they froze and stored for the big day. Hughes was afraid to even guess how much butter and how many eggs went into this year's effort.
"It's just all naked cookies," said Hughes, surveying her empire. After the decorating is done, the cookies are bagged, boxed and distributed or shipped to friends, teachers, coaches, hairstylists and family members. Not a few are eaten before they make it out of the house. And there's always at least one batch that is forsaken in the recesses of an icebox somewhere.
"Sometimes, six weeks later, I'll be digging around in my freezer and find a package of 100 little cows we forgot," said Hughes, wryly noting the absurdity of misplacing almost nine dozen cookies. Every year there's some glitch, she said. On Saturday night, for example, Hughes had to run out to Michaels to buy more green food coloring because the kids used so much decorating tree cookies.
A grandson, 11-year-old Dan Hughes, was there with his mother, Roseanne Hughes of Manassas. His hands, teeth and tongue were tinted a deep shade of green by midafternoon. His mother, hard at work on baseball and tennis ball cookies, also made cookies in the shape of sea horses to give to the members of her son's swim team.
"I wish I could spend two days," Dan said. "Christmas is my favorite holiday because of this," he said while putting the finishing touches on a crab. Or was it a VW bug?
"We'll see an idea in a food magazine in February or March" and save it for Cookie Day, Dan said.
At some point during the day, pizzas are delivered, because man cannot live on Christmas cookies alone. (Actually, the men in the Hughes family pretty much scatter on Cookie Day, parking themselves in front of the TV to watch football.)
One year, one of the adult Hughes children made plans to take all of the grandkids swimming to give them a break from decorating. None of them would budge. This year, some of the kids brought a change of clothing, knowing it is verboten to sit on Grandma's furniture covered in frosting and sprinkles, which all of them inevitably are after a few hours -- or minutes.
The driving force -- the cookie visionary -- behind the controlled chaos is Offutt, who lives in Studio City, Calif. "She has a vision," said Offutt's stepsister, Christine Wysor, 45, of Arlington, who considers herself more of a worker bee than a decorating artist. "I just see cookies, and she sees something else."
Offutt, whose birthday is Dec. 24, brought empty boxes and suitcases with her last weekend so she could transport cookies back to the West Coast for distribution to friends and associates. These cookies are serious business.
"We joke that if Mom could only have me back for one [time in December], she'd pick Cookie Day," Offutt said, laughing. She is a whirling dervish of activity, her long blond hair streaked with frosting that belongs on a cookie somewhere. One minute she is piping -- or applying icing around the edges of the cookies -- and another placing red hots on a hippopotamus and another helping her niece coax the last bit of green icing from a tube.
"I'm so proud," Offutt said, looking at her niece Rachel with mock tears. "She's the future of this family."
Once evening arrives, the wine comes out and the grown-ups get really silly. "I'm almost in tears at that point," Offutt said.
There were no tears in the Hughes household Saturday, though, only good times. Amid the frenetic activity was the dynamic of a big, busy family together for a reunion and enjoying each other's company. The laughter and chatter, like the cookies themselves, just kept on coming. The next day and the next day would be about cleaning and packing up. Saturday was strictly about fun.
Colleen Horn, 34, of Arlington is about to marry into the Hughes family, exchanging vows with Janet Hughes's stepson Paul. Saturday was her second Cookie Day, and she found herself at one point on her knees at the dining room table, piping frosting on a cookie of some variety. She could not say she wasn't warned.
"I think it's wonderful," she said with a laugh. "A lot of families don't have this kind of tradition."