Lillian Swaney's Sour Cream Cookies
Growing up, Christmas never happened on Christmas Day. December 25th was always celebrated in balmy Dallas, football games in the street with 18 feisty, devoted cousins. It was a glorious holiday, but it wasn’t Christmas. Christmas always happened on a Friday in November.
The day after Thanksgiving I would wake up in my bed in dear old, frigid Iowa, beneath my navy quilted coverlet in the bed that Dad had built for me with a dollhouse as a headboard. I think I still like the cold because winter was the only time of the year that my farmer father would get a day off, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was one of them. After a hot breakfast of stacked pancakes with gooey, buttered centers, my brothers and sisters and I would bundle up in our hand-me-down coats, snow pants, and boots and then trek out into the snow. Mom would be resplendent in her floor-length wool coat, her dark hair wisping about her face as her cheeks grew pale with cold. We’d lay down in the bed of the pick-up for the five miles to The Tree Farm, then groan as the pickup bounced over the stalks of last fall’s harvest toward the trees in the valley of the field.
It’d always take so long for everyone to agree on the perfect tree, but in the end it wouldn’t matter what we thought, for only the tree that got Mom’s nod would feel the pain of Dad’s saw. It looked so small in the forest, but then so large once it was erected in the living room, a couple of 2x4s and some nails as a tree stand. And it would wait, bare and wild between the couch and the piano, until night.
And then everything happened at once. I would find the cassette with the accapella version of “In the First Light”. Dad would string the lights, while the siblings would sort out each person’s collection of Sunday School ornaments. And Mom would bring out a heavy lump of dough from the fridge, cold and wafting the slightest scent of spices. Choosing only the youngest to help her with the cookie cutters, she would lay out shapes of wisemen and stars, sheep and shepherds, a virgin mother and a baby. We ate those cookies as fast as she removed them from the oven, still piping hot and never bothering with frosting.
Then, just as the tree began to bow with the weight of a hundred ornaments, Dad would walk through the house and turn down every light. We would gather on the living room floor, lined up like sardines, and squint our eyes. And in the darkness, eyes squinted, the blurred lights of the tree would turn into a million stars.
“Can you see them?” Dad would say, lying there in the midst of us. “This is just what the sky looked like when angels appeared to tell the shepherds about the baby.”
And all would be quiet as we tried to imagine what an angel actually looked like. How terrifying must a being be, who’s every greeting must be, “Don’t be afraid!” How did the shepherds dare believe that they’d been chosen to witness the greatest and most mystifying act in all of human history? Who could be more humble than Mary, who bore the news of a baby, stigma, rejection, and childbirth, with only the words, “I am God’s servant, and I hope it happens just like he wants it to”?
And when it was time, without one gift under the tree quite yet, we would tramp up to bed, full of Christmas.
Lillian Swaney’s Sour Cream Cookies
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon soda
3.5-4 cups flour
Cream sugar and butter. Add egg yolks and mix well. Dissolve soda in sour cream and add to sugar and butter mixture. Mix in salt and vanilla. Then add four, 2 cups at a time. Chill the dough. Roll out onto floured board and cut out cookie shapes. Bake on engrossed cookie sheet at 375-385 for 8-10 minutes.