Tennessee family bakes together at Christmas to brighten season for others

Royce Bigelow shows off some of the cookies that her family decorates every Christmas to be given out to families as part of Endure Athletics Ministries. Bigelow stands in her Murfreesboro, Tenn., dining room on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022.
Nancy DeGennaro
Southern Kitchen

Hovering over a plate of Christmas sugar cookies, Bailey Bigelow reaches for a bag of colored icing. “Can I have the red?” asks the pigtailed 10-year-old.

Next to Bailey, 14-year-old Lauren Bigelow spreads icing on a cookie while her 3-year-old cousin, Lakelynn Vallance, places M&Ms on top.

“Any time I can spend time with them one-on-one or as a group is a pleasure to me,” said Royce Bigelow, who hosts her grandchildren for a cookie-baking session each holiday season at her home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Once a year her kitchen becomes a beautiful mess when her nine grandchildren — and now, two great-grandchildren — gather to make Christmas cookies.

Everyone is involved, from measuring and mixing to decorating and packaging.

“Four of them will line up there, making the dough and cutting out cookies,” Royce said, pointing to her small bar-style countertop. The rest gather around the kitchen table to decorate.

Although "Nonna," as Royce is called by her grandchildren, has enjoyed making Christmas memories for nearly 20 years, she has a mission that reaches beyond her family.

Dozens of Christmas cookies baked at her home are delivered to children enrolled in Endure Athletics, a nonprofit program established in 2015 by Royce's son, Joel Bigelow, and his wife, Jeannie Bigelow.

The youth, who live in hotels, did not have access to many affordable options for outdoor activities or mentorship outside of the school system. 

So Joel took a leap of faith, quit his job seven years ago, purchased a 12-passenger van and established a nonprofit. The mission is to enrich the lives of homeless youth living in Rutherford County, with a long-range vision of breaking the cycle of generational poverty for those living in adverse situations.

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The nonprofit provides enrichment activities, after-school programming, academic support, summer day camps and meals.

When Christmas rolled around the first year Endure Athletics was operational, Royce decided her cookie baking with the grandchildren could serve a higher purpose.

“We’d always done Christmas cookies for family, so we thought we’d make a batch for each of the families of the Endure kids,” Royce said. “I wanted to be part of helping and doing something for the kids.”

The first year there were five families served by the program. In 2021, there were 27 families and Jeannie expects 30 this year. The cookie bakers try to make enough for each family to have at least a dozen.

In addition to the cookies, a meal of lasagna, green beans, bread and dessert made by volunteers is delivered to Endure Athletics families on Christmas Day.

“At Christmas, we want the kids to have homemade food,” Jeannie said.

Royce Bigelow's Roll-out Cookies

1 cup sugar

1 cup shortening

½ cup milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups flour

Mix sugar, shortening, milk and eggs. Then add the remaining ingredients. Allow to chill. Dust rolling surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll out dough and cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes. Allow to cool before icing and serving.

Buttercream Icing

2-pound bag powdered sugar

1 stick butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ to ½ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Blend softened butter and vanilla. Mixing by hand, add powdered sugar, a little at a time, until it starts to blend. Slowly add up to a quarter cup of milk, mixing well. If you want a thicker icing, use less milk. Once blended well, add food coloring of your choice, according to directions. Separate into pastry bags, using tips to decorate as desired. Thicker icing holds up better on the cookies.