Christmas was always a source of great excitement in my family. My mom, sisters, and I adored the holiday, and we kept busy from Thanksgiving until Christmas with baking, decorating the house, listening to our favorite Christmas music, and watching classic TV specials like Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. (I still watch those programs to this day. It's just not Christmas for me until I see Rudolph.)
My mother, being a true Irish Catholic, was partial to Bing Crosby, and every year we watched the TV Christmas special he produced with his (as it now turns out abused and suicidal) family. The episode in which Bing sang Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth with David Bowie caused quite a stir in our household, believe me. "Who is that awful man with Bing?" my mom exclaimed. "He looks like he's ill!" Well, heroin has that effect on some people.
My dad existed in a space on the periphery of our Christmas exuberance. He drove us all to the Christmas tree lot when we chose our tree, and when we got home, he jammed the tree into the cheap green and red metal stand. After that, he would go back to his reading, and the rest of Christmas was up to us.
My sisters and I made yards and yards of garland out of construction paper and paste, and some years we strung popcorn and cranberries to hang on the tree. This was also back in the day before multicolor strings of lights. There were blue strings, red strings, green strings, white strings. Usually one set of lights would burn out shortly after being put on the tree, at which point my grumbling father would be pressed into service once more to buy more lights at Osco Drug.
One of the major highlights of our family Christmas season was baking cut-out Christmas cookies and then decorating them with red, white, and green frosting and iridescent sugar sprinkles. The picture above shows my mom, my sister Erin, and me doing just that in 1973. My younger sister, Sheila, didn't enter the picture for a few more years.
(Note, if you will, my delicately raised pinky finger. Nelly, even at age six.)
We had an old, battered set of tin cookie cutters in the shapes of a Christmas tree, a snowman, some sort of bird (a dove perhaps, or the partridge from the pear tree?), and a wreath. When I was in high school, we bought a set of plastic cookie cutters with more elaborate Santa and reindeer shapes, but they never worked as well as the old tin cutters, so we quickly abandoned them.
It's impossible to overstate how much I loved those decorated sugar cookies. Like most things my mom baked, they tasted of almond extract. She was a big fan of almond extract, though she typically used the artificial kind, since it was a few cents cheaper. Back then I didn't care about the pedigree of the ingredients, of course. I just knew I liked eating the head off the bird first, and if given a choice between the Christmas tree and the wreath, I always chose the Christmas tree, because the wreath was just a boring circle, like any non-Christmas cookie.
I was so fond of those cookies that I would ration my consumption of them to make them last longer. I would note with anxiety when the Tupperware cookie container was only half full, and I would feel impotent rage to see my sister take one bite of a cookie and then leave the rest on the floor to get trampled. Didn't she understand that when the cookies were gone, that meant Christmas was over? It seemed I was the only one in the family who grasped that crucial fact.
I'm not sure what year we first skipped making the cut-out cookies. I know I was at least of college age. By then, time was always in short supply around the holidays. My mom worked full time, and my sisters had busy social lives that left little room for rolling out sugar cookie dough. Sometimes it just wasn't possible to squeeze in all of our holiday traditions in the same year.
It saddens me that I can't recall the last time we all sat together and worked on those cookies. I can imagine how it went, though.
My mom would have rolled out the dough for us. Then my sisters and I made quick work of the dough with our cookie cutters, turning it into the familiar holiday shapes that were quickly popped into the oven. Soon, we would be faced with dozens upon dozens of aromatic, golden cookies that required our artistic vision to bring them to life.
No doubt the first dozen cookies we decorated were masterpieces of carefully applied frosting, sprinkles, and candy pieces for eyes, buttons, and Christmas tree ornaments. Another hour into the process, though, and we were just slathering on a perfunctory schmear of frosting, haphazardly shaking on some sprinkles, and grabbing the next cookie from the endless pile.
My dad would wander by periodically to steal a cookie, and my sisters and I would tell him to take one of the "boring ones," because we preferred to eat the "good" cookies that we had decorated with extravagant care and attention to detail.
As we worked, we chatted. That was the best part. We talked about school, friends, family, about whatever struck our fancy. And at some point, my mom said "I'm so glad you kids are here with me."
I have a lot of holiday baking to do this month, but none of it will feel as special as that last time we all sat together in my parents' dining room, surrounded by precarious towers of cookies.