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Does 'Store Bought' Spoil The Holiday Spirit?

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I admit it. I'm baking challenged, meaning I've seen or tasted every kind of kitchen calamity known to man or woman: the misshapen cookies, the cranberry muffins that were still raw in the middle, the chocolate cakes that quickly became very sloppy Mississippi Mud Pies after they failed to rise.

And that's why my neighborhood's annual holiday cookie exchange -- as well as this month's multitude of bake sales -- always fill me with trepidation. Sure, the Evite seems innocuous enough on its festive surface: "You're Invited To A Holiday Cookie Exchange." But scroll down and there are the details -- a harbinger of the stress to come.

Please bring these 3 items with you:

FOUR dozen or so of a favorite holiday cookie
ONE extra, EMPTY container to take your new goodies home
ONE wrapped, ANONYMOUS kitchen/dining/cooking-themed "White Elephant" gift ($20 value)

With a pounding pulse I wonder, like I do every year, am I being a cheat -- or at the very least tacky -- if I bring store-bought items? I realize that it's silly to expend any amount of emotional capital wondering whether or not I'll be the only person showing up with a few plates of Speculoos from Kings. But, for me, small stresses can add up.

I've been going to cookie exchanges for most of my adult life and know from experience that these seemingly trivial events are actually serious stuff. I've seen a full-time accountant and mother of three play the "oh-this-took-me-no-time-at-all" card before unveiling dozens of homemade chocolate-and-mint taste sensations blended together in perfect checkerboard-style fashion -- so pretty they could be featured in Bon Appetit. I've also seen sweet and gooey Pecan Tassies -- always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser -- and gingerbread "people" that looked as though they'd been painted by Picasso.

Oh, and what about those Martha Stewart recipes? I have a friend who always brings almond-cherry shortbread -- the kind of treat that requires at least 12 ingredients: four for the cookie dough, five for the honeyed almonds and three for the macerated cherries. The good news is that the recipe yields four dozen cookies; the bad news is that it would probably take me four dozen hours to make them.

In short, I just don't measure up. Obviously it's no crime to bring store-bought goodies -- and at least I don't try to doctor them up to look homemade. (Who can forget the emblematic opening scene of "I Don't Know How She Does It" when narrator Kate Reddy "distresses" a store-bought mince pie to make it appear homemade?) But a small part of me really admires those who give of themselves in this way -- who put their all into creating something with time and care, so that they can share it with friends.

In the end, I'll go to the cookie exchange, just as I always do. I'll mingle and nibble and have a fabulous time. And I'll try not to stress over my store-bought donation (I promise it will be better than Chips Ahoy!) and vow to laugh about the whole thing the next morning.

After all, I have other things to stress about. I still have to find the perfect decoration for another party -- the annual ornament exchange.

So give us your take on the debate over homemade and store-bought goods. And check out what Facebook fans had to say on the topic in our slideshow.

Is it cheating to bring something store-bought to a holiday potluck?
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