Christmas Cut Out Sugar Cookies

5 superior alternatives to the traditional cookie swap in Atlanta

For every person who adores the office or extended family cookie swap, there's one who could do without it but is afraid to say so. For every homebody salivating at one woman's enraptured dreams-do-come-true descriptions of attending a cookie swap with Ina Garten, there's another with memories of spending way too much money at the upscale bakery, just trying to keep pace. Maybe it's the gluten, the calories, or the baking involved. But whatever your reason, you can find an alternative to your cookie nightmare. Here are five substitutes for the traditional cookie swap in Atlanta:

Swap wine. You've got the moms, you'll be buying wine in bulk for the holidays anyhow. Why not gather together to swap wine instead of substandard place-and-bakes? This can become a double tradition if the group has a pre-party at a tasting or class somewhere like the General Store at Serenbe (10642 Serenbe Lane, Palmetto, 770-463-2222) or Perrine's Wine Shop (1168 Howell Mill Road NW, Atlanta. 404-254-5077). Make sure to coordinate what people bring and set a high and low dollar limit, so you don't end up with 12 cases of Merlot. And consider adding popular holiday wines like champagne and Beaujolais to the mix. This themed swap party is easy and fun! Spending an afternoon sipping with friends and leaving with a case of nice selections for the rest of the year means you've got at least one holiday party that cannot go wrong.

Make gingerbread houses. This is a fun way to have your cookies and a tradition worthy of the sweetest little granny without having a bunch of butter, sugar and gluten hanging around when you're done. Instead of a cookie swap, bring the cool ingredients that people use for decorating gingerbread houses and swap those. You can make the houses while you're there if you like, either using prefab kits (available at Big Lots, even) or baking your own frames. (Give that last duty to whoever protests most loudly that you're not doing cookies this year.) This is the type of tradition that lets everyone shine. If you're best at buying twig pretzels, you're good. If you want to make homemade marshmallows and melt-away butter mints to use as gingerbread house shingles, you're also set. As you might recall, no one really enjoys eating the finished product, so have lots of fun nibbling on the ingredients as you exchange.

Simmer soup instead of potpourri. No one will ever catch a case of Blue Christmas at the sight of seven or eight homemade soups stockpiled in the fridge or freezer. You can even go gluten-free or keto if the other elves are in that mode. Before committing to the final recipes, have fun with a Facebook page full of suggestions. Just make sure you don't use ingredients that don't freeze well, like potatoes or cream. For those who are getting cold feet about eliminating the cookie swap this year, here's an encouragement. You can browse soup recipes all day on Pinterest, just like cookies you pin and never make. And you deliver these soups for the swap in mason jars! Just make sure they contain 20 ounces or fewer, so people can put them in the freezer without worry. Need ideas? Kathy Gunst, author of the "Soup Swap" cookbook, is here for you.

Share centerpiece and wreath material. They're the Food Allergy Research and Education organization, so you really don't expect them to be fun. But the gluten-free watchdogs did have a good idea. Instead of gathering to swap goodies that can set off allergies, consider swapping decorations. If your group is already so stocked with tree ornaments that you're on a three-year rotation, this can still work. Just coordinate to purchase either greenery, flowers, fruit or tiny baubles so that everyone can leave the gathering ready to create fresh centerpieces or door swags. If you have one extra crafty friend to lead you, consider doing the projects right there. This idea is darn useful if you hang out with the gluten-free, dairy-free, keto or paleo-engaged crowd.

Mix and match guest room baskets. This is another holiday task on the list of "you have to do it anyway, why not share the hassle. Also, ho ho ho." If all of you are anticipating house guests, swap stuff to go in those thoughtful holiday guest welcome baskets. You can do this with Christmas music in the background and defrost some mini quiches from Costco and call it a day. Make a list of who will bring what, not to ruin the surprise but to make it so not everyone picks up hand sanitizer. It's a really fun chance to buy local coffees, chocolate, movie gift cards, hand soap, holiday tea towels and so forth, without doing a lot of shopping – just exchanging.

This is also a fun way to disperse some fruits of your own labor, like natural make-your-own lip balms. Reminiscent of a cookie swap, you can learn to make your own at a class from the Homestead Atlanta (6:30-8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 20, $10) or stop on your way to the swap to buy all-natural, locally crafted skincare goodies from area farmer's markets.

Even if you're not the family or office holiday dictator, make it a point to plan way ahead if you'd like to move on from a long-standing cookie swap tradition. People who might accept the idea enthusiastically in early November will not be as agreeable as it creeps closer to Christmas and all their holiday anxieties return like Santa at the back of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Worried about disturbing generations-old traditions and being haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future? Remember, if no one ever planned something new, we'd still be celebrating the season by cramming huge logs into the fire while our Viking friends drank mead.

And maybe you'll be hailed as a hero when you timidly speak up to say you have plenty of broken, green sugar cookie shards in the freezer and would like to try something different. Other rebels with Christmas tradition suggestions have gotten a warm welcome after the initial shock wears off, and you may too. (Surely this was the case with the first person who said, "Wow, we could really do without these mushy, flavorless chestnuts roasting on our open fire this Christmas.") The very best argument of all, if it comes to an argument, is the reassuring truth. Let everyone know if you don't like the substitute, you can always return to the cookie swap next year.

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