Growing up, we really only had two Christmas albums we listened to: Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and a crackly old cassette tape, copied from a friend's record who knows how long ago. It was a darn brown cassette with a lined label over top on which my dad's spidery handwriting had scrawled "Living Strings Christmas."
This was our favorite. We would listen to Living Strings pretty much on repeat all through December, flipping it from side to side and knowing every crackle and skip of the recording - so much so that when singing "The First Noel," my sister Amy and I still sing the last line "Nooooeeeh--ehh-elllll noelllllll," just like the wrinkles in the cassette tape demand.
As was inevitable, the tape began to disintegrate as we all grew older. The thought of being without our beloved Christmas music was not something I wanted to consider, so tracking down the original record became my quest. I googled and searched eBay and combed through thrift stores and record bins... but nothing was quite right. I found plenty of Living Strings and Living Voices, but none of these Christmas albums sounded remotely right. The greatest failure of this quest was probably the time I ordered a Living Voices record, convinced I finally had found The One, only to discover when it arrived that it was actually a Bing Crosby record in disguise - someone had put in the wrong case. A good record in its own right, but just not... quite what I was looking for.
Enter my dear husband. I told him this epic tale each Christmas and, by the second year, he changed the whole story when he did the logical thing - opened Shazam and had me turn on the crackly recording. Lo and behold, my dad had simply mislabeled the retro bootleg and Living Strings turned out to be The Longines Symphonette. Why I didn't try this earlier is still a mystery to me. Mostly I think it's because I believed it was too much of a niche off-beat thing to be recognized by the app, but that'll teach me. So we ordered several copies and surprised the whole family that next Christmas. I won't ever forget putting the record on my turntable when it arrived, still not certain that it was the right one, then dancing around the apartment to White Christmas with Aaron, giddy beyond belief that I at last had the long sought record. But let's be honest, I'll still always call it Living Strings.
Anyway, that's enough about my Christmas music. One of my favorite holiday memories was the yearly creation of decorated sugar cookies. We would put on Living Strings (because of course) and spend a whole day rolling out dough, cutting shapes, and decorating with glaze and redhots and other delicacies that only came out in December. My poor mom, though. We would all be gung-ho for the first hour or so, then reach our creative peak after about 10 cookies. And then leave her with the rest of the batch. I never fully grasped how irritated she must have been by that until I had all the extra cookies left after a decorating party one year and had to do the task myself. We were mean little buggers.
But my love for these stays strong. It's never fully the season until I've glazed a sky-full of stars and made at least one yellow snowman. I still make sure I have one of those in every batch even now. He's the herald of the season and the embodiment of my childhood snickers. It's just not quite the holidays without a token yellow snowman present on the cookie plate.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a bonus post featuring these made with browned butter! (Spoiler: they're amazing.)
holiday sugar cookies (for decorating)
yield: 4-5 dozen, depending on shapes
1 cup butter
2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups flour
1½ cup powdered sugar
4-6 tsp water
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar, and eggs. Add salt, baking powder, vanilla, and flour and mix well until thoroughly combined.
Roll the dough on a floured board and cut into your favorite shapes.
Bake at 400 degrees for 6-8 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Place on wire rack and cool, then ice with glaze when cooled.
To make glaze, add the powdered sugar to a glass measuring cup with a pour spout.
Add in water one teaspoonful at a time until the sugar is dissolved and the glaze can be painted on, but hold its shape.
Divide into bowls and add food coloring to make your favorite colors.
Tip: a muffin tin is perfect for dividing out the glaze into cups of different colors. Keep toothpicks on hand to stir it.