A Message for Writers from the Kringla Tradition

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

My great aunt Zella was the first person I remember baking Kringlas. I have vivid memories of one Christmas at her farm—an authentic Currier and Ives scene—complete with these special Norwegian cookies. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. I’m sure there were other scrumptious cookies and pies, but all I remember are the Kringlas.

Fortunately, I asked for the recipe from Aunt Zella before she died. They quickly became a family favorite. Our four children grew up celebrating Christmas morning with Kringlas and eggnog. Now that they are grown, married, and have given us twelve wonderful grandchildren, this tradition continues in their families. I think the record of one of my granddaughters is seven or eight at one time. They are not small cookies.Nativity_tree2011

No one can conceive our holiday gatherings without them. Just saying the word floods my mind with joy and thoughts of family. Buttermilk makes them moist and cake-like; the subtle flavor of cardamom makes them delectable.

Kringlas are a personal tie that binds our cherished Christmas memories through four generations. But not all people have the same tastes. It’s okay that Kringlas don’t mean as much to other families. I happened upon something that continues to appeal to my family.

What is the message of the Kringlas?

Your audience is your writing family. You write for them. Have you pinpointed what appeals to them about your books, or to your critique partners and readers if you are pre-published? If not, why not take a survey in one of your blog posts or ask followers on your author Facebook page. Ask people who come to your book signings. The best way to care for your reader family is to stay true to the traditions you are establishing with them.

And of course, we also have an audience of One. God is pleased when our writing draws readers to a true knowledge of him.

What lasting Christmas traditions does your family have? Did you engineer them, or did they happen organically? What is it about your writing that keeps your readers coming back for more?


Pinpoint the elements of your writing that keep readers coming back for more, and start a tradition. Click to Tweet.

Your readers are your writing family. Care for them by remaining true to what they expect from your books. Click to Tweet.

53 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. Mary, The Kringlas sound lovely! I must admit that I had to google them, and I plan to bake them!

    Your post reminds me of the antique mixing bowl on my frig that is filled with old cookie cutters. (I ADORE tradition and the magic of cookies!) The cutters represent a pattern of successful writing to me. First, find something appealing (a topic/format of writing or a well-liked recipe). Next, create your own version (write your book using your own style/bake and decorate with your own special blend of ingredients and decorations). Last, see what is a hit. Follow through by creating more of the same. Your readers (or cookie-eaters) will come back for more and a tradition is born.

  2. What a wonderful memory, and it was great foresight that you asked your great-aunt Zella for the recipe.

    My mother-in-law recently passed away, and the secret of her turkey stuffing went with her. My wife spent a few desperate days trying to recreate the flavor, but not knowing what spice was used, and having to guess proportions – it was difficult. She came fairly close in the end, and with triumph gave it to her sister-in-law, who had planned a Thanksgiving feast ‘just like Mama Jean would have done it’.

    But in the end sister-in-law changed her mind, and they had pizza.

    We don’t have Christmas traditions at our house, but in a home where people are outnumbered by dogs 13 to 1, this may not be surprising.

    I like to think of it as fulfilling a deeper Christmas tradition. There was no room ‘at the inn’ for these guys, and they faced a cold, lonely world. Our door will always be open.

    I’m lucky that I’ve been told specifically what people like about my writing, and why they want to see more – (please pardon the immodest tone that follows; I’m trying to summarize actual comments)

    Although I’m a man, I understand how women think and feel. I can write to that in a way that women find emotionally satisfying, and to a degree cathartic.

    At the same time, I don’t put off men. I give them the license to touch the hurts of the heart without emasculating them. (This, from a Marine who served in several wars – in combat.)

    • Andrew … I know on my grandparent’s dressing recipe, SAGE is critical. And quite a bit of it.

      And on my book … my husband told me it was too girly for him. His uncle didn’t care for it either … and even commented that if he had wanted to read Scripture, he would read his Bible. Ha! But my gruff, tough as a bear, worked on a railroad uncle read it … he called me after reading my book … I said, “It was kind of girly, wasn’t it?” He said, “No, it was Godly.” Melted my heart. He has read it over and over and keeps it locked in his safe every night. Precious. His pastor asked him if he’d like to donate it to the church library, and my uncle said, “No … you can donate yours … but my baby wrote in this book for me, and I’m keeping it!” What a keepsake to my heart!

      • Sage…that sounds right. I can’t sample it myself (no gluten!) but the smell of it cooking…I think adjusting the sage may be critical.

        Your uncle’s a gem, and not afraid to be truly a man.

      • Andrew … my uncle has such a soft heart. He is a gem. My husband’s family are tough critics. I had his aunt read my book and give feedback … asking for punishment! As much as I knew it would hurt and be hard on me … I figured if I could survive her criticism, I could survive anyone’s! And the funny thing … bless her heart (and I do love her), she criticized me through tears!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew, your traditions are wrapped around your care of those dogs. Your on-the-job training to meet their needs, even though you can’t understand their language, might also have been God’s gift of techniques in understanding how women think and feel. You are blessed to have such affirming feedback of your work. Perhaps another tradition is forming.

      • That’s an excellent point, and I had never considered it – that learning to understand the language of a different species can enhance understanding within my own.

        And oh, yes, I’m blessed. The simple willingness of readers to reach out and share positive feedback, when they already have so many demands on their time, is humbling.

  3. Mary, I have never heard of Kringlas either. Do you do anything different from an “original” receipt? If I googled the recipe, would it be like yours? My grandmother would always try to give me recipes … but she never measured anything … so it was always hard to match hers. But I have her potato rolls down and her dressing!

    I’ve never really had people tell me specifically “why” they like my writing. I’ve just had people call me in tears or tell me that they cried through the whole book/work. Next time, I plan to ask why.

    When I was writing for an internet magazine, I once mentioned that I didn’t want to make a particular work too hard for the reader to understand … and my editor commented that my work is always very simple to understand. I’ve never been a big words kind of girl. Though she didn’t say it critically, more affirming, I wasn’t sure how to take it … and as I was getting a little older, I wondered if I would soon have a job (the magazine was for younger women)… not long, I received a message from the “hand-held” magazine editor asking if I would consider writing for them … she said that she loved my writing. Meant the world to me. She had been watching my writing.

    I think that in each writing, there is something the Lord speaks to me that brings me to tears … and I try to pass that tenderness on. I pray on my face over each article … begging God to give me what “He” wants said over that issue/topic. I did the same for my book.

    Please forgive me if anything sounds vain … I would never intend it that way.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Shelli, why not ask those who read your material why they like it? If you see a consistency in their responses, you are starting a tradition. No doubt God is answering your prayer to communicate his message in your writing.

      As for the Kringlas, Aunt Zella’s recipe uses only buttermilk, not heavy cream and sour cream. And butter, never shortening.

  4. What an interesting topic, Mary. My mom always made a breakfast casserole for Christmas morning…complete with blueberry muffins. It doesn’t taste like Christmas without it. I started making it after she passed away.

    When I write, I try to see every action as a sign of something deeper…sometimes, a metaphor for something else. It’s not surprising, since I used to write a lot of poetry. 🙂 But I suppose my tradition of cooking that casserole isn’t really about the taste or the food itself. It’s a way to remember my mom, and all of those family Christmases we had together.

    • I should also say that another favorite tradition is putting up our Christmas tree with my mom’s old ornaments. I didn’t inherit my mom’s ability to make things pretty, but somehow our tree looks beautiful just because they have her beautiful ornaments and pearls. I put it in our window for the world to see. It’s like a symbol for who she was…light pouring forth in joy for our Savior.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Lindsay, that’s the irresistible ingredient in our special Christmas traditions: the memories that are folded into the food, decorations, ornaments, favorite gatherings. They connect us to those we hold dear from the past and refresh us for what is ahead.

  5. Mary, your Norwegian cookie tradition sounds so homey and heart-warming. Both my husband and I come from tradition-less families, but our relationship with the Lord has so turned our hearts toward home and family that we are constantly seeking new traditions. My birth mother’s family was Scandinavian (Finnish, Danish, Norwegian), so I’m going to try those Kringlas.

    I have had several blog readers comment on their enjoyment of my writing, so I need to go back and reread their comments to discover why. I like your suggestion of a survey. As I plan out a new year of writing, the guidance in those answers would be invaluable. Thank you, Mary, and Merry Christmas!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, your children will be blessed by the traditions you and your husband establish, like giving a plant nutrients for healthy roots. And just think, you will be remembered as the originators of them. That’s special.

      So true, an end-of-year survey will provide guidance as you begin a new year of writing.

      Homey and heartwarming are words that perfectly describe our beloved Kringlas.

  6. I collect pewter ornaments. Which cannot possibly break! Which is good, because I also have a weakness for letting my kids decorate the tree. I know, I’m awesome like that.
    And they BEG! Oy! Do they beg!?

    Many times I’ve started a comment and stopped. I want nothing this year. No presents. No bling. No new clothes. Nothing.

    Why? Our prodigal daughter has come home. Four years, 21 days, and countless prayers after she left, our only daughter is HOME.

    That is a gift from heaven.

  7. Mary Keeley says:

    I Googled some Kringla recipes online. They all vary. Aunt Zella’s recipe is a little lighter, and perhaps more delicate to handle. Here it is for anyone who wants it:

    ½ C butter, softened
    1 ¼ C sugar
    2 egg yolks
    1 C buttermilk
    3 C all-purpose flour
    1 tsp. baking powder
    ½ tsp. baking soda
    ½ tsp. salt
    ½ – 1 tsp. ground cardamom

    Cream butter and sugar until light. Beat in egg yolks. Blend in buttermilk. Stir together remaining ingredients. Blend into creamed mixture; beat well. Divide dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and put in freezer for 2 hours.
    Work with one half at a time, keeping other half in freezer. Divide each half into 18 pieces. With floured hands, roll each piece on floured pastry cloth into a rope about 9 inches long. (Dough will be soft to work with so flour hands and surface often. It also works best if you roll out all 18 pieces before shaping each one and placing them on the cookie sheets.) Handling lightly, shape the ropes into figure 8’s, place them on a lightly greased cookie sheet overlapping and sealing ends slightly. Don’t try to fit more than 9 cookies onto a sheet. Bake in 350 degree oven for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom (pale on top). Repeat with remaining dough.

  8. From the time we were old enough to sit up, the grandchildren in my family straddled my Papa’s old sled for our yearly picture in front of the Christmas tree. As spouses were added, we had to place a low stool to the back of the sled to fit everyone, and now the great-grandchildren pile on top of the adults. 🙂

    My critique partners have mentioned that they like my use of subtle humor, the integration of the natural world and the symbols that come from it, and the way I “treat emotions as if they were tangible objects”. I’ve been so blessed by these affirmations because it helps balance the areas that I still need to improve.

    Mary, I’d never thought of calling these attributes traditions, but it makes so much sense. If we consistently give the reader what they expect and enjoy, they’ll become more familiar with our voice, and hopefully long to hear (read) it again and again.

    • I’ve always been afraid I would get bored with the same old-same old. But between Carol’s comment about cookie cutters and your comment, Jenni, about readers becoming familiar with our voice, light is beginning to glimmer. It’s the same idea as looking forward to a letter, or now an email, from a friend. It’s warm and familiar even as the information inside is fresh and new.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jenni, remember those affirmations from your critique partners. They may well be the elements your readers will continue to appreciate in your writing as well. Your tradition has begun.

      Your annual family sled photo sounds happily crowded!

  9. KRINGLAS! My apologies for the full caps, but the subject of Kringlas warrant them in the Keeley family. Ahh, the Christmas spirit just filled my heart. No one can make them like Mary Keeley, and to think all along there’s been a writing application to glean from them. Brilliant. Thanks, Mom. Great topic. I look forward to eating them soon. And now back to being professional . . .

  10. What a wonderful tradition, Mary. Thanks for sharing it. Thanks for the recipe, too.

    I feel blessed that my girls are big on tradition. Around this time of year we go as a family to NYC, stay in the same hotel, and make sure to hit many of the same places–even if we add in some new ones each time. As for Christmas Day, it’s singing Happy birthday to Jesus, followed by presents, and then a breakfast of muffins before the extended family comes over to open presents here and share dinner.

    As for my writing, many have pointed to the emotions my work stirs up. Others have enjoyed the descriptions. I try to hold those kind words in my heart and build on them as I work on new projects.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Yours are wonderful traditions too, Cheryl. From NYC excitement to hearth and home with family. Perfect.

      The specific feedback on your writing is a tradition in the making for your writing.

  11. As for tradiiiiition!! TRADITION! (who has Fiddler on the Roof tunes stuck in their heads now?) in our house. Hmmm.
    I’d have to say it’s the opening a small, no, I said *small*, gift on Christmas Eve, the candlelight service where no one lights anyone’s sister’s long hair on fire, driving around to look at Christmas lights, and then home for what we call “The Family Feast”
    We started this ages ago when the kids, and a certain husband, kept asking for goodies that I couldn’t really find time to make, or didn’t want to serve, for Christmas dinner. Things like crab rangoons, wontons, ridiculously expensive cheeses, fancy crackers, sushi, posh deli meats, French bread, miniature quiches, finger foods you spear with plastic swords and on and on…
    The funny thing is, I’d have 25 people over on Christmas Day, but The Family Feast is closed to anyone without Major or Zarifeh DNA.

  12. One of my favorite Christmas traditions is finding a Santa ornament whenever we travel. Our tree is decorated with really unique Santas from all over the world. We’ve had to be creative on many vacations when we couldn’t find a Santa. For instance, when we went camping in Quetico (on the Canadian/Minnesota border) I had to whittle a Santa! It actually turned out pretty well. 🙂 Now, when we decorate the tree, we share all the fun memories all over again. We have Santas from Paris, Africa, Barbados, Aruba, New York, Iowa, Orlando, and many other places near and far. Our kiddos love hearing the same stories retold, and they love telling the stories they now remember from the ornaments they’ve helped collect. It was an organically grown tradition that happened when my husband and I went on a class trip to London in 1998 just after Christmas. The very first Santa was this charming little tin man who jumped out at me in a shop. It’s been a fun tradition ever since. In a way, we bring Christmas with us throughout the year as we travel.

  13. I’m hard-core Norwegian. We have lutefisk and lefse. : )

  14. Lynn Hare says:

    Mary,mmm! Those Norwegian cookies sound marvelous. I wonder if there’s a gluten-free equivalent?

    What a fun question about traditions. Our family has a fire in the fireplace and lots of games. A turkey roasting in the oven and the smell of savory pie – usually strawberry-rhubarb or apple – fills our home on Christmas day. I pray we pass down the tradition of focusing on the birth of Christ and His redemption as our primary focus.

    Mary, what is your favorite Christmas song? What is your favorite symbol of Christ in the season?

    I pray a blessed Christmas and a season of Christ’s peace for you and your family, replete with possibilities for the Holy Spirit and His creativity!


  15. Jaime Wright says:

    We don’t have any traditions outside of the typical family gatherings and decorating a tree. Our family is SO organic, Christmas just evolves differently each year. 🙂 However, with the little ones now, decorating “day” seems to be something new developing. A day where we decorate the house and tree and sugar cookies 🙂 I love the warmth of Christmas lights and construction paper tree toppers 🙂

  16. When people marry, and two sets of Christmas traditions must meld together, it doesn’t always go well. So I let all of the lovely traditions of my upbringing go in favor of what my wife wants: thematically decorated tree instead of random ornaments; early decorations rather than most on Christmas eve; no candy house; no Christmas church service so no midnight mass, the most beautiful Episcopal service of the year (at least in the church I grew up in); totally different menu; static nativity instead of a dynamic manger scene (characters moving across the house to Bethlehem; magi not getting there till Epiphany). Alas, this is probably one of the reasons I can’t get real excited over Christmas.

    • But to try to be more positive, perhaps my favorite Christmas tradition from childhood days was how we did the manger scene. The manger went up about two weeks before Christmas, with only animals. About a week before Christmas, Joseph and Mary appeared somewhere in the house, with a donkey. Every day they moved a little closer to the manger. They arrived there Christmas eve. Christmas morning (or maybe Christmas eve), we placed baby Jesus in the scene, along with shepherds, sheep, and an angel. Christmas morning the magi appeared somewhere across the house, and moved day by day closer to the manger, arriving there on January 6.

      I never could get my wife or children interested in doing that. They always wanted to see the manger scene intact right after Thanksgiving.

  17. Kiersti says:

    That’s such a good idea, to ask people what it is they love about your stories/writing. Thank you, Mary!

  18. Peter DeHaan says:

    Maybe I can have some Kringlas for Christmas this year!