Mixing up a storm to get ready for Christmas gatherings are, from left, are Bill Betsinger of Blaine, Russ Betsinger of Spring Valley and Emery and Nancy Eckert of Cedar Falls, Iowa. The siblings gather to create hundreds of Christmas goodies to share with others during the Christmas season. Not shown is Russ's wife, Joanie Betsinger, of Spring Valley.
Mixing up a storm to get ready for Christmas gatherings are, from left, are Bill Betsinger of Blaine, Russ Betsinger of Spring Valley and Emery and Nancy Eckert of Cedar Falls, Iowa. The siblings gather to create hundreds of Christmas goodies to share with others during the Christmas season. Not shown is Russ's wife, Joanie Betsinger, of Spring Valley.
Here's a Christmas season riddle for you . . .

What do you get when you mix 90 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of white and brown sugar, 15 pounds of butter, 10 pounds of peanut butter, 10 pounds of real dipping chocolate and 10 pounds of almond bark with five members of the Betsinger clan?

Answer: You get 816 dozen cookies, candies and treats to enjoy and share during the Christmas season, which often lasts even after the Epiphany!

For 40 years, Russ Betsinger of Spring Valley has continued a tradition of making sweet treats for family, friends, co-workers and even strangers during the Christmas season.

"I have been cooking for most of my life," Russ explained. "While growing up, if you were the oldest at the time when my folks would go out for the night, it was your job to make the meal and take care of the rest of the kids and there were six kids younger than me! I'm glad Joanie likes making treats and entertaining, too. As for Christmas goodies, I enjoy watching people's faces when they try one of our many cookies or candies."

Joanie's favorite candies are taffy and sweet and chewy caramels. The nursing staffs at Fillmore County Public Health and Ostrander Care Center are delighted with the plates she brings into their workplace.

Russ really enjoys cooking with his family and friends and one reason is, "I am able to pass on some recipes that have been in our family for 60 to 80 years - some of the recipes I got from my Aunt Amy Rance from Elma, Iowa, who is in her 90s now." Russ noted. "When I bake with my family, we get to remember all the good times we had growing up. I remember my mom would hide the cookies and candies so we would have them for Christmas."

Russ comes from a large family including 12 children. His mother and father had 37 grandchildren and many great- and great-great grandchildren. "We have about 140 members just in our family and Joanie and I have Christmas for the Betsingers at our home each year where around 40 still gather in Spring Valley from parts of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota."

When the annual Christmas baking gets underway, Russ' brother, Bill Betsinger, arrives (as he has for the last seven years) from Blaine, Minn., on Sunday evening. By the time the night is over, these two men have created two kinds of candies and mixed up three batches of cookies.

"I take three days off work at Ferguson Water Works to start my Christmas baking with Russ," Bill said. "The guys at work always look forward to the trays of Christmas goodies I bring back."

Monday morning starts with cookies baking so the whole house smells "delish" by the time Russ' sister, Nancy Eckert, and her husband, Emery, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, arrive to join in the Christmas cooking. Nancy and Emery have been able to join Russ, Joanie and Bill for the last three years since retiring from their places of employment, Nancy as the city clerk of Waterloo and Emery as a machinist for Doerfer Engineering and Iowa Laser in Cedar Falls.

"How lucky am I that I have two brothers who enjoy baking and actually enjoy baking with Emery and me," Nancy reflected. "We have so much fun making cookies and candy, teasing each other and reminiscing about when we were younger and about our other siblings. It's really not about the baking for me, it's about spending time with Emery, Russ, Bill and Joanie. Making the cookies and candies has become a tradition that I hope we can continue for many, many years."

Experimenting with new recipes is always fun and this year Peanut Butter Cut Outs was introduced to their usual favorites. "We like to make cookies and candies that we've had for years," Nancy said. "But it's fun to try something new, too. My favorite is the dipped chocolate chip cookies. You bake the cookies and after they are cooled you dip half the cookie in dipping chocolate."

Chiming in, Russ added, "My favorite cookie is the old fashioned date pinwheel cookie and if you are lucky, I'll share one with you. Or you can try the recipe and I hope you enjoy it as much as we do."

The Betsinger Baking Crew makes Christmas shaped suckers, which are time consuming but really enjoyed by the grandchildren. "The overflowing plates are delivered to family, friends, co-workers, and others in the weeks before Christmas." Bill explained. "I like to have another baking time after I get back home where I make another 200 dozen cookies and candies. It's an extra special joy to be able to give a Christmas plate of goodies to single mothers who just don't have the time or energy to make cookies and candies themselves. They appreciate it so much!"

For three days, this team of bakers and candy makers work together while listening to classic country music, reminiscing of days gone by and laughing.

"We all grew up helping with the cooking," Russ said. "It's great fun working with my family. Just being together with each other is special as there aren't a lot of us left. We used to get together at our folks' house but as families grew, there were so many that we needed to rent a hall. Now, we enjoy getting together whenever we are able."

As cookies and candies cool, they are stored in airtight containers and placed in areas for each family to take home to enjoy or give away.

"Christmas to me means giving," Russ commented. "Just as God the Father gave his son to us at Christmas, being born as a baby, we like to give to others what little we have. We all have something good to share and making something good to eat at Christmas is our gift to others and makes Christmas more special for all of us."