By Mary Ellen Christy
Traditions are the shared stories and experiences that are passed from one generation to another create strong and loving bonds within a family. At Christmastime, recollections of family traditions fill our hearts with fond memories of Christmases past and thoughts of loved ones. Each family must establish a pattern of meaningful traditions for themselves. My childhood memories of our traditions include: festive family parties, skating on the Midway Pleasance, visiting Santa Claus in his Cozy Cloud Cottage deep within the Marshall Field’s State Street Store after breakfast in the Walnut Room, sorting through our toys and donating those that were still in good condition, nervously memorizing my part in the Christmas Pageant, annual trips to the Nutcracker, and watching Barbara Stanwick, Dennis Moore, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Skall and Reginal Gardner in the film Christmas in Connecticut, my father’s favorite film. There were neither Netflix nor DVD’s in those days, so we had to study something called “the T.V. Guide” and plan our activities according to when the film was available.
Ellen and Jane at The Nutcracker.
I have continued many of these traditions with my own children and now am doing so with my grandchildren. We continue to see the Nutcracker and this year we saw the Joffrey Ballet’s exciting reimagined version at the beautiful and historic Auditorium theater designed by Adler and Sullivan and constructed in 1889. There are also a few other opportunities to enjoy productions of the Nutcracker. The Ruth Page School of Dance and the Hyde Park school of Dance both do wonderful productions and Netflix has a wonderful 1991 production by the New York City in which Macaulay Culkin dances the role of the Nutcracker. So, you can also curl up on your own couch and enjoy the beautiful music. In this generation we have continued the tradition of a church centered Christmas with participation in Pageant and a program called Revive. This program is sponsored by Cathedral Shelter and agency of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and from our parish alone, one hundred and fifty families Christmas wishes were fulfilled. We also follow my family tradition of thinning out both toys and clothing and I suggest that donations be taken to Cradles to Crayons, a wonderful not-for-profit organization serving families located at 4141 West George.
Today (December 16) at 3:00 PM you and your children can gather in the courtyard of Saint Chrysostom’s church at 1424 North Dearborn and carol with the carillon. A carillon is a musical instrument that consists of 23 bronze cast bells housed in a tower. The instrument is played by an expert musician called a carilloneur. Children will delight is singing along with the bells. Complimentary hot chocolate and coffee will be served.
An elf on the CTA Holiday Train.
Children will also delight to take a ride on the CTA’s Randolph Bus and Holiday Train. Please check the CTA website for times and routes. As you can see, both Santa and some of his elves have been known to greet you on the train. If you choose the Brown line you can also take the train up to the Montrose stop and get off there and enjoy a family sized banana split or some other confections at Margie’s Ice Cream Parlor, which is located right under the “L” tracks and then board the train for the return trip.
Visiting Santa at the Driehaus Museum.
The Driehaus Museum, located at 40 East Erie, is truly a treasure. On Saturday mornings, and this year they have added Sundays due to demand, “Santa at the Museum” is a wonderful event for families with small children that is both fun and appropriate. The program limits the number of participants to about 20 children and is approximately one hour in duration. Housed in a beautiful and architecturally significant 19th century mansion, this jewel of a museum offers not only this program but numerous others and is well worth your investigation. There are four parties each day beginning at 9:00 AM. The cost is $20.00 per adult, children are $15.00 and children 2 and under are free. You begin with an opportunity to create some artwork and the ascend as a group up to the third-floor ballroom where you are treated to a dance performance by some snowflake ballerinas from the Joffrey ballet, a story read by Aunt Holly and a visit from Santa Clause. One of my own twin grandsons pictured here on Santa’s lap remarked: “Wow! Santa has a big house!”.
One of the great treasures of Chicago is our beautiful Millennium Park. Among the park complex’s many attractions is my personal favorite, the ribbon in Maggie Daley Park. Located at 337 East Randolph, in the heart of Chicago’s downtown, the ribbon provides a skating experience like no other. You skate through rolling and varied landscapes with the skyline of our beautiful city behind you. A $40.00 fast pass will allow you to skip the rental line and entitles you to a locker in which you can stow your gear while you skate. Concessions are available there and there are numerous restaurants along Michigan Avenue. What a beautiful; spot for a family photo to preserve this memory.
Amtrak offers a Polar Express experience which departs from Chicago’s Union station located at West Jackson Blvd. Ticket prices range from $75.00 per adult/$65.00 per child at peak times to value priced tickets of $52 and $45. For details on the schedule and to purchase tickets go to their website: chicagothepolarexpressride.com. Passengers often board the train in their pajamas and set to the soundtrack of the film, the fun begins. Once the conductor has punched your ticket, then the dancing chefs arrive and serve hot chocolate and delicious Christmas cookies. Soon Santa boards the train and each passenger receive “the first gift of Christmas” a silver sleigh bell. To learn more, you will simply have to board the train. The train runs all the way up to New Year’s Eve.
My favorite among the new traditions established by our family is the Santa Cruise on Lake Geneva. For our family this is an update of a long-standing tradition. Having spent the last 40 years summering in Wisconsin, we always closed the house, loaded up the car and drove into downtown Lake Geneva where we boarded the Gage Marine Mail Boat for a final ride around the lake. There the mail is delivered by a refitted 19th century lake steamer to mailboxes mounted on piers. As the boat cruises slowly by the letter carrier jumps off the front of the boat, deposits the mail and jumps onto the rear of the boat and repeats the process when they arrive at the next pier. You can imagine my delight when I learned several years ago that Gage Marine now offers a Santa Cruise which leaves from Pier 290 at the Williams Bay end of Lake Geneva. The first cruise begins on the Friday After Thanksgiving (the one we opted for) and runs daily until New Year’s Eve. Tickets can be purchased online at santacruiselakegeneva.com. In addition to the daily cruises for children, there is an 8:00 PM cruise on Friday and Saturday nights for adults which includes a musical review.
When you purchase your tickets, you are asked to register the names and ages of the children on board and whether they should be registered on the naughty or the nice list. Prior to boarding the boat, you can visit the 12 Trees of Christmas and donations from this part of the event go to local charities. Mr. Gage himself told me that in the past two years they have raised two hundred thousand dollars in support for these charities. When we cruise to the pier where Santa Claus is waiting, he reads the list and the children all squeal with delight. I don’t recall hearing that anyone on board was on the naughty list. Each child received a lanyard with a card certifying that they were on Santa’s nice list. After we disembarked from the boat, we went for a delicious dinner in front of a cozy fire place at Restaurant 519 which includes good menu choices for children, as well as excellent adult fare.
Little Angel book.
My final suggestion of a tradition worth establishing is either reading aloud or telling the wonderful stories of Christmas. A personal favorite of mine is the story of the little angel who is afraid of flying and the smallest shepherd who, although he is afraid of the dark and of wolves, is left alone to guard the sheep when all the other shepherds follow the singing angels to Bethlehem. The little angel falls from a tree and tears her wings. Micah, the little shepherd, lifts her from the tree and although she is worried that her broken wings will prevent her from ever returning to the land of angels, together they set off on an adventure which includes encountering a wolf. The little angel charms the wolf by tickling him and the three set off together to discover baby Jesus in the manger. As the story closes, the head angel comes to repair the little angel’s wings and she takes the little shepherd’s hand and they fly together while the wolf gently guides the sheep back while carrying the shepherd’s staff in his mouth.
Reading and telling stories within your family will give your children the great gift of a love of literature. A wonderful and economical way to decorate your house for Christmas is with books about Christmas. Among the most beautiful of these is either The Christmas Wish or The Reindeer Wish by Lori Evert and Per Breuhagen, along with anything written by Jan Brett of which there are many. She has written a new one called The Sunny Nap about a little hedgehog who wants to resist hibernation.
I often select beautiful children’s books as Christmas gifts for adult friends. You can also so often find beautiful editions of poetry such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening which are intended for children but have illustrations that would delight any adult. Treat your family, your friends and yourselves to some wonderful books this Christmas because a good book is a good friend you can carry with you wherever you go.
A very Merry Christmas to all! ~
In January I will write to you about teaching children Money Management – just as the January bills arrive.