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Who’s the best cookie baker?

You could take away the lights, the trees, maybe even the presents.

But don’t skip the cookies. Seriously, would the holiday season be as cheerful without cookies?

It certainly wouldn’t be as sweet without the cookie bakers. This year, we asked readers to nominate the best homemade-cookie bakers they know.

We got stories about grandmothers who taught their kids and are now teaching their grandkids. We heard about people who take a vacation just to bake, and people who bake for everybody who needs a lift, from teachers to prisoners.

Narrowing it down was tough. But when we got repeated nominations for three bakers, we had to take notice. We picked a winner and two runners-up, including a 9-year-old who would rather bake than do anything else. Here are their stories and recipes.

Did you get nominated? Take a look at the list on page 4C – some sweet elf might have sent us your name, too.

Winner: Judy Mongold, Concord

Judy Mongold doesn’t just make cookies. She hand-paints cookies for every holiday or occasion, and she donates them to causes and arts groups all over Concord.

The variety of nominators was astonishing: A woman who got cookies after her mother died. A young man who got patriotic-themed cookies when he was serving in Iraq. And, yes, Mongold’s husband, George, who told us it takes her two days to make and decorate 160 cookies.

The ones who really sang Mongold’s praises were her fellow choir members at First Presbyterian Church in Concord. That’s how the cookies got started, when the choir had a practice that fell on Valentine’s Day.

Those cookies were such a hit, she did it for the next holiday, and the next. And then people wanted a few to take home. Now Mongold makes as many as 160 cookies at a time, and “Miss Julia’s Cookies” – she goes by Judy but her real name is Julia – are a tradition all over Concord.

Mongold, 68, raised four kids, but she didn’t do much baking when they were small. There was no time. These days, she teaches anyone who asks, although most can’t take the time she does to decorate them.

“People ask me to do them for money,” she says. “I’d have to charge them a thousand dollars!”

Runner-up: Susan Marshall, Lancaster, S.C.

Some people call her “The Cookie Monster,” some call her “The Cookie Lady.” After someone finally asked Susan Marshall to count how many cookies she bakes each year, it turned out to be 8,000 to 13,000.

“Anywhere I go, I drag cookies with me,” she admits.

She makes them for occasions from bake sales to the volunteer fire department’s annual barbecue. One nomination was particularly special: Her Sunday school class at St. Luke United Methodist sent in a petition with 28 signatures.

Her specialty is the Ginger Crinkle, a spice cookie, although it’s not her favorite. She prefers chocolate.

This also isn’t Marshall’s first appearance in The Observer: In 1993, she was featured for her collection of more than 200 cookie jars.

Runner-up: Mary Pope Bourne, Charlotte

Never fear that the art of baking will be lost. Not if Mary Pope Bourne, 9, has anything to do with it.

A fourth grader at Charlotte Country Day School, she started cooking when she was 4 or 5.

One nominator, Cheryl Kaufman, predicts Mary Pope will have her own cooking show one day: “She is an absolute riot to watch in the kitchen.”

Mostly, Mary Pope likes simple cookies, like chocolate chip. This Thanksgiving, though, she got fancy, making turkey cookies from Oreos and chocolate ganache, with candy corn feathers and malted milk-ball heads.

“I love cooking for my family,” she says. “I just like to see the smiles on people’s faces when they eat my cookies.”