The invitation arrived back in August.

Save the date: Dec. 8, Nina's Annual Holiday Cookie Exchange.

At first, I chuckled at how early some bakers begin prepping for this annual quest for the perfect Christmas cookie.

But then the apprehension set in. As sure as my sister-in-law Nina would be serving us a tray of baked ziti, her neighbor Diane Wagner would be aiming for top-cookie honors for the third year in a row.

What will the undefeated Diane bake this year? Last year, she brought tiny snowmen on a bed of coconut snow. The year before, she got the prize for peanut butter reindeer with cute little pretzel antlers (how Philly!).

But this year, I resolved to be a contender. I would start early, and even find out which cookbook Diane was using. I would find the perfect cookie that would win votes!

This Christmas cookie exchange began in 1993 in Willingboro, when about 10 of us - sisters, mothers, in-laws and cousins - baked our favorite cookies. We made little stained-glass cookies with crushed Life Savers, twists of candy canes, and heavily spiked rum balls.

We now laugh about the early days: the burnt peanut butter cookies someone brought one year (we all pretended we could not see their little blackened bottoms); the slice-and-bake scandal another year; and the time someone stopped at a bakery on the way over and ditched the store box. (We know home-baked when we taste it!)

But through the years, and especially since my brother's family moved two counties south to their big new house in Mickleton, the cookies have gotten prettier and prettier and just plain cute.

Four weeks before the party, I began to think of my 2007 cookie - keeping in mind "The Rules," which are absolute: "Bake 3 dozen of your favorite cookie. Chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter cookies are on the 'Do Not Bake list,' " says the invite.

My search took me straight to the Inquirer's food editor for her holiday cookie books. I pored over Martha Stewart - nope, her chocolate pepper cookies won't stand up to those pretzel-eared deer; Joy of Cooking Christmas Cookies; Betty Crocker (the book I cleverly found out Diane used in 2005 and 2006); Family Circle and something called Cookie Craft, with recipes that looked like a whole bunch of sugar cookies.

My sister in California sent me a Web site. I get the 12 Days of Cookies e-mail from the Food Network. Nope, the winner is not here; no one wants a sesame-ring cookie, and besides I'm still hot with them for canceling Emeril.

Of course, there are the family hardliners for whom taste will always win, who just don't "get" the pretty little dainties. There's my guy who hides my prized chocolate chip cookies in a tin where the kids can't get them. My brother, who between downs of an Eagles game, pipes up, "The cookies usually taste terrible now anyway. We never eat them." His son nods in agreement, still miffed over the ban on chocolate chips.

And there's my mom, who thinks it's ridiculous to bake anything that you would not eat yourself, hot out of the oven. This year, she baked the almond cookies she remembered from her New Orleans childhood, adapted from a Fannie Farmer recipe. "You know, almond cookies are very popular in Nawlins," she said.

Finally, I settled on sugar cookies shaped like ice skates with peppermint canes for blades. I even enlisted my colleague Amy from the art department to help with the Rockefeller Center display of them propped up on a rink of silver with a tiny sparkling tree in the center.

Let me be clear. If you don't have a day to spend decorating your cookies, you will not win this competition. Baking a sugar cookie and sprinkling on a bit of red or green sugar - fuhgeddaboudit. Get out your pastry tube from the back of the cabinet. Go for the silver and gold cake dust.

On Saturday, the doors swung open to about 40 friends, neighbors and relatives.

Just like the cookies, even our kids are cute. My niece Jasmine invited 10 little girls, all of whom dressed in winter white. They greeted the women, took their cookies, their gifts and their coats. "Their moms want them to learn proper etiquette," said Nina. The girls also baked some cookies of their own.

Each cookie entry was given a name, and all of them were spread out over three tables. We nibbled on the ziti and then voted on the cookie winners. (Yes, that's right. We vote, but never taste-test a single cookie. It's all about beauty in this contest.)

Diane already had cute in her favor. She baked little Santa faces, with coconut beards. And, (yikes!) she used a recipe from Pillsbury Holiday Baking 2006. My ice skates are in the same book, 2007 edition.

In the end, neither Diane nor I won.

The votes were handed to the next generation: Jasmine Childress, 13, and two of her friends, Melanie Nieves, 14, and Ana Kramer, 11, took the top three places - even though they threw aside holiday conventions - with sugar cookies rolled into hot dogs and cut into the shapes of children and ducklings.

Still, it was a beautiful ending to our holiday tradition.

Watch a video of holiday cookies being decorated at http://go.philly.com/cookie EndText

Tiny Snowmen Cookies

Makes 6 dozen cookies

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1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 orange slice jelly candies, flattened slightly

Miniature chocolate chips, 2 to 3 tablespoons

Colored decorating gels (0.68-ounce tubes)

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, for garnish, optional

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1. Heat oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees if using a dark or nonstick cookie sheet). In medium bowl, beat butter, 1/2 cup confectioners' (powdered) sugar and vanilla with mixer at medium speed until smooth. Beat in the flour and salt.

2. Divide dough into thirds. With one-third, using slightly rounded 1/4 teaspoonfuls, make 72 balls. With remaining two-thirds, using slightly rounded 1/2 teaspoonfuls, make 72 balls. On ungreased cookie sheets, place one ball of each size side-by-side for each snowman, arranged 1 inch apart. Bake until underside is golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, use scissors or sharp knife to cut each orange candy into 18 tiny wedges (72 total). Press 1 wedge into each warm cookie face as a carrot nose. Press mini chocolate chips on the body of each snowman for buttons. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

4. Use colored gel to make tiny eyes and a smile on each cookie face. If desired, sprinkle powdered sugar over all.

- From Pillsbury Holiday Baking (2006)

Per cookie: 180 calories, 2 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 100 milligrams sodium, no fiber.

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Cookie Skates

Makes 30 cookies

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For the cookies:

1/2 roll (16.5-ounce size) refrigerated sugar cookie dough

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

For the frosting:

11/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup butter, softened

4 to 6 teaspoons lemon juice

Green food color

30 small candy canes

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1. In a large bowl, break up cookie dough and mix in the flour by hand until well blended. Shape into a 10-inch log, wrap in plastic and freeze for 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Take dough from freezer. Flatten dough down center of roll with handle of wooden spoon. To form boot shape, use fingers to flatten one side of the log to 3/4 inch. Cut log into slices 3/8-inch thick, place on ungreased baking sheets, flatten slightly and bake until edges are light golden brown, 8 to 11 minutes.

3. Remove cookies from pans at once. Let cool fully, about 15 minutes. (Cookies may be made up to 1 month ahead and frozen in a tightly covered container.)

4. To decorate room-temperature cookies: In a small bowl, mix the sugar, butter and enough lemon juice to achieve desired spreading consistency. In another small bowl, reserve 1/3 of the frosting, add green food color to tone desired, blending well. Put the green frosting in a plastic resealable food-storage bag, trim the tip at one corner of the bag and use bag as a piping tube for decorating.

5. Coat the cookies with white frosting. Put small dabs of white frosting along the bottom edge of each cookie and attach a candy cane to each as a "skate blade." Break off the tips of the curved ends if necessary. Use the green frosting to pipe laces and bows onto the skate boots.

- From Pillsbury Holiday Baking (2007)

Per cookie: 90 calories, negligible protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 35 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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Swedish Almond Wafers

Makes about 50 cookies

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3/4 cup finely ground raw (unblanched) almonds

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons light cream

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1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a heavy saucepan, mix all ingredients and cook, stirring, over moderate heat until the butter has melted.

3. Arrange by scant teaspoonfuls, 3 inches apart, on a lightly buttered cookie sheet. Bake, watching carefully, until lightly browned at the edges but still bubbling a bit at the center, 3 to 5 minutes. As soon as the edge is firm enough to lift the cookie with a spatula, move it to a plate and let cool. Do not stack the cookies. Handle with care.

- Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1984, 12th edition)

Per cookie: 37 calories, trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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Contact Weekend editor Deirdre M. Childress at 215-854-2463 or dchildress@phillynews.com.