Once, there was a fire.

The blaze started with the rosettes. Or was it the fruitcake bars? It may or may not have required a call to the fire department. It's hard to get the story straight. After 30 years of mimosa-spiked baking sessions, the icing-drenched memories all start to blend together.

Still, "the year of the fire" has become part of the mythology of this annual event, which began with four friends, added in spouses and children, and baked into something as integral to the season as a dusting of snow and a holiday ham.

Cookies are an essential ingredient in many a Minnesotan's holiday. But who has time to make piles of spritz and shortbread and bars, or the patience to frost 10 dozen cutouts? So in an effort toward expediency — sprinkled with Christmas cheer and a dash of hygge — lots of families and friends get together for cookie-baking parties.

But few are as long-lived or raucous as Ann Bailey's annual cookiestravaganza, where the wine is as free-flowing as the sugar.

Her renovated Apple Valley kitchen (you can bet there are two ovens) has become the focal point for what has become a beloved holiday tradition for several families. This year, 10 bakers, plus a few husband-helpers, made and exchanged a whopping 800 cookies.

It started in 1989, when Bailey invited three friends she met while at the University of Minnesota to her tiny Bloomington apartment. She thought she'd outsource the arduous task of frosting piles of cookies made with her grandmother's antique (and oddly shaped) cookie cutters, and then share the spoils in a cookie exchange.

"We just brought supplies out of our kitchens and let her rip," said Bailey, who works as president of DARTS, a Dakota County senior services center, and is the 2019 Commodore for the Minneapolis Aquatennial. "We opened up the cupboard and made it happen."

It was so much fun that the girls came back the following year — and the year after that.

Bailey moved to a place with a bigger kitchen, and a few more friends joined in. Some of them had kids, and used the day to take a break from their families. Eventually, the kids started coming, too, first in car seats, later as bakers themselves. Some of them are now in college.

Bailey, now 56, never thought it would turn into such a venerable tradition. But she had a clue by Year 5, when she made aprons with each baker's name embroidered at the top and a unique jewel for every year a baker participated. Now, rows of multicolor studs adorn the mandatory accessory, each one a point of pride.

For the 20th anniversary, Bailey and her husband, Randy, created a book of recipes, complete with some of the songs the group sings around their eight-leaf-long antique farmhouse table after the cookies are done.

Assembly lines, peer pressure

Collective cookie baking is in Bailey's genes. Her grandmother used to bake stacks of her cutouts over Thanksgiving, and Ann and her mother would frost them till Christmas. But she never did a group exchange on this level.

"I think I just did it because there's a theory of, let's just get one house messy instead of all of the houses," she said. "My house isn't big enough for this, but it's more fun that we're walking all over each other."

Indeed, on a Saturday in early December, every available surface, indoors and out, was being used in some fashion for the festivity.

A decoration assembly line set up shop at the dining room table, where Bailey's metal cookie cutters have become something of a running joke and a Rorshach test, of sorts. Depending on how they're decorated, it's anybody's guess whether a given cookie resembles a pine tree or a salamander.

Fresh-out-of-the-oven trays cooled on the patio and on the floor in the living room. The stove, the microwave, the mixer and a pizzelle waffle iron were all going at once. Empty wine bottles accumulated on a kitchen counter.

"No-bake is my thing because there's a lot of competition for the oven," said Sue LeGros of Burnsville, who mixed marshmallows, peanuts and chow mein noodles with semisweet and butterscotch chips to make haystacks.

Kerrie Leinmiller-Renick of St. Paul rested her phone on a kitchen ledge to check on her Pinterest-inspired recipe for sea salt, pretzel, butterscotch cookies.

At 23, Leinmiller-Renick is a newer addition to the club. She was invited to join by Bailey, her boss at DARTS.

"Coming from Kansas, I had no one," Leinmiller-Renick said. "The holidays are lonely. This is a blessing."

A college floormate of Bailey's, Jennifer Murray moved away before she ever got to participate in the early baking events. A few years ago she moved back to Woodbury, and now has four studs on her apron. As a relative newcomer, she feels the pressure to earn her keep.

"I really have to think of recipes that will be meaningful," she said as she sliced into a log of rosemary shortbread dough. "Everyone's been doing this so long."

To entertain the young kids over the years, Randy Bailey used to organize a craft-making station, known as Santa's Workshop, in the basement.

"One year my kids made birdhouses and they were thrilled," said Jan Armstrong, a 29-time baker from Eden Prairie. "To us, you would go and make cookies and goof around. But this was bigger than we anticipated."

Baking up a tradition

Now that most of the kids have grown up, Santa's Workshop is closed. The two remaining kids spend most of their time spreading neon frosting on Bailey's cutouts.

With their own twists, of course. Fifteen-year-old Grace Marek put a dollop of purple onto what appeared to be a sideways triangle on a stick. Was it a hatchet?

No, she said, "It's a megaphone for women's rights."

Grace also painted a Frida Kahlo unibrow on what should have been a cutout of a little old lady "with scoliosis," according to her mother Susan Marek, one of the original four bakers.

Beth Gunderson of St. Louis Park, another original baker, brought something new this year: a kitchen torch for browning the tops of her crème brûlée cookies, in honor of the fire she may or may not have started so long ago.

She put her daughter Rachel, 17, to work manning the flames.

"This is why we had children," Gunderson said, "to decorate."

Rachel has been coming to the cookie bake for 12 years, and plans to start her own when she goes off to college, she said. "I definitely feel like I'll continue this with my friends."

She browned another cookie top. Her mom had, quite literally, passed the torch.