L aughter and the noise of family waft from the carport of Jean and James O’Beirne, where everyone is up to their elbows in frosting.
For 45 years “Honey” and “Daddy-O” have gathered their family on the Sunday after Thanksgiving so each can decorate their very own “cooky house.”
It’s a tradition that began after James O’Beirne was transferred from south Louisiana to Dow Chemical’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan. With the freezing weather forcing their three daughters — Jenny, now married to Walter Morales; Jackie, married to John Pastorek, and Janelle, married to Gary Johnson — to spend most of their time indoors, Jean was always looking for indoor activities to keep the girls occupied.
“One of those wonderful activities was making a Christmas ‘Cooky House,’” says daughter Jenny. “The recipe came out of an old (1963) ‘Betty Crocker Cooky Book.’”
Back then, the Cooky House was quite large, and buying all the necessary cookies, candies and other goodies to make it was a luxury for the O’Beirne family. But it was something the entire family looked forward to every Christmas.
When the family moved back home in 1975, the tradition continued. As the daughters got married, the one large cooky house morphed into three smaller ones (scaled down by half) and the original design was ditched for more personal creations.
The tradition expanded again with the birth of the first grandchild.
“When Jenny had Ryan, we said ‘Let him do one,’” recalls daughter Jackie.
Seven grandchildren later, there are now easily a dozen Cooky Houses under construction every holiday season.
“The project is fun, but it also gets the family to interact,” explains Jean O’Beirne. “When you have teenagers, it’s hard sometimes but this develops relationships with aunts, cousins. It’s the ultimate of my whole being, doing this project.
“James originally did all the cut outs for the houses,” she continues. “Now the sons-in-law do it.”
“Everybody does something, helps out in some way,” says Jenny.
“But we don’t just let anybody join in,” adds Jackie, laughing.
You might say Cooky House construction day serves as a sort of can-you-stand-all-the-loudness-and-fun test for future spouses. Ryan Morales, Jenny and Walter’s son, has brought fiancée Alexandra Livaudais to construction day for the past two years.
As the first grandchild, one his duties is to explain “proper cookie etiquette” to newcomers.
Last year, Sarah Morales and fiancé Chris Vitenas created their Cooky House as a wedding chapel. The newlywed’s Cooky House this year is a replica of their first home.
“Now that they’re getting older, they’re getting more creative,” says Jean of her grandchildren. “They can request cookies and candies to make their house.”
“It’s nice to see the evolution of the kids,” adds Jackie.
“Their houses usually reflect whatever’s going on in their lives,” says Janelle, whose daughter Olivia created a Katrina House the Christmas after Hurricane Katrina.
Jean’s heart is full as she talks about the tradition she started with her daughters in frozen Michigan almost a half century ago.
“Now they’re continuing the blessing with their children, who will pass it down to their children,” she says.
That’ll be easy to do, as over the years, Honey and Daddy-O have given all three daughters and seven grandchildren a copy of the “Betty Crocker Cooky Book” as a Christmas gift.
“Whether Thanksgiving with in-laws called us out of town or grandchildren were in college out of state or even abroad, we’ve always made arrangements to be together on the Sunday after Thanksgiving,” says Jenny. “Everybody’s always here.”