By Mary Ellen Christy
Traditions are things we pass to one another from generation to generation and create special bonds within a family. It is important to honor and practice traditions that are most meaningful in your family and to discard those which no longer are. Last Christmas, I became busy and was completely overwhelmed. I forgot to buy the Christmas crackers which we have always enjoyed at our Christmas Eve Dinner. When I did remember it was too late, they were sold out everywhere. My adult children were horrified that we had no silly hats and silly little cheap toys. Another universally important tradition in our family is attendance at the annual Christmas Pageant. My grandchildren are now the actors.
Growing up in the 1950s my experiences of family life were so different from today. There was no Amazon Prime or Fed-Ex to provide rapid delivery of Christmas gifts. We would deliver gifts personally, and my favorite aspect of this tradition was to ride around the neighborhood with my father dropping off gifts to friends and family. We would pile presents in the backseat of the car and because these were pre-Ralph Nader days, I was permitted to sit in the front seat, snuggled beside my father without the benefit of car seats or seat belts. Our car was an enormous green sedan with camel leather seats, a ceiling lined in camel flannel and four giant doors that opened in opposite direction. That flannel ceiling retained the familiar scent of my father’s cigars and royal lime aftershave. On these rides he would share his observations of life which I came to think of as reality conditioning, I loved the fact that during these special rides he would talk to me as if I were an adult, sharing his wry and often irreverent observations of the world and the people in our world. On more than one occasion as I accompanied him to pick up my mother’s youngest, unmarried and somewhat troubled sister, he whispered to me: ”Here comes your Aunt Frances, ready to ruin Christmas”. At that moment I was elevated to the level of a co-conspirator, flushed with delight.
Every child growing up in Chicago during this time period considered Marshall Field’s the centerpiece of Christmas traditions. Although it was Macy’s in New York who first created Christmas window displays, it was Marshall Field’s who took them to a new level. We would board the Illinois Central Railroad in Hyde Park, tingling with anticipation at the thought of seeing the Christmas windows which were always thematic and numbered sequentially to tell a story. We began at window one and walked around the entire building which occupied an entire square block. Then we entered the store with its gorgeous, towering coffered ceilings and exceptional decorations. We would go up the escalator directly to the fantasy world of the fourth-floor toy department. There we saw a train display larger than the entire train installation at the Museum of Science and Industry. Then on to the doll section where dolls of every size, color, and country of origin imaginable were on display for sale. Then there was a truly unique section where you could be photographed and a doll that replicated your exact likeness could be produced. Next, we would move on to Cozy Cloud Cottage, the home of two Field’s original characters, Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly. We would stand in a long line, organized by stanchions and thick red velvet ropes which organized us until it was our turn to enter the cottage and take a place on Santa’s lap and share our Christmas wish list and have our pictures taken with him. Our final stop was to eat lunch in the Walnut Room under the great tree of Christmas.
When my first child was born, we added a new Field’s which my husband read about in the entertainment section of the Chicago Tribune. Marshall Field’s announced that the store would open at 7:00 A.M. on Christmas Eve and guests would be ferried up in elevators manned by pinstripe suited executives to enjoy breakfast under the tree. This is a tradition we continued for more than 20 years, missing only one year when the actual temperature was -10 degrees. Over the years we added people to the group while some dropped off the list. Each year we saw the same families while dressed in ugly Christmas sweaters and crazy hats—a tradition they also adopted—as we watched our respective families grow. Although we never knew their names and saw them only once a year, we greeted one another like old friends saying: ”great to see you” or “hope you have had a good year.” When my husband passed away, we kept the tradition going although we struggled to do so when Field’s was purchased by Macy’s. But rather quickly change was evident, and the final straw was when it was announced with great pride that the emblematic Frango Mints, which you could watch employees prepare behind the glass walls of a magnificent marble candy kitchen, would now be made in Hersey Pennsylvania. Time to break with traditions that no longer satisfy and create new ones.
While selecting terrific children’s books to be read aloud with the family, old favorites remained while brand new ones emerged each year. Reading aloud as a family creates a wonderful sense of intimacy within a family. Among my favorites to read aloud is of course, the Christmas story, particularly as it is told in Luke, as well as Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Winter Night”, and a beautiful series by Lori Evert which includes The Christmas Wish, The Polar Bear Wish, and The Reindeer Wish. These books have gorgeous original photographs and showcase a very special understanding between children and animals. In the Reindeer Wish, Anja rescues a baby reindeer and raises him to adulthood. In order to satisfy his fondest wish, they begin a fantastic journey together and I am sure it will be obvious to all of you exactly where they are headed. A new release I found this year is Santa’s Prayer by Tom Roberts. This delightful book steers children toward the true meaning of Christmas without removing the fun of Santa Claus. In this story, two school-age children come upon Santa kneeling in church before he begins his epic worldwide journey by sleigh. Perhaps my favorite Christmas story is a short story by Truman Capote titled “A Christmas Memory.” This poignant story is definitely not meant for children but it strikes me as emblematic of a child who was being forced to grow up too soon and an elderly adult who was kind enough to resist ever growing up. There are many versions of this book but my favorite is a 50th-anniversary edition which is accompanied by a CD of Celeste Holm reading the story aloud.
At some point, we face the dilemma that all parents must eventually resolve, which is answering the earnest question of a trusting child asking: “Is Santa Claus real?” In the case of my youngest daughter, who grew up to be a successful lawyer, the question was followed up by “you wouldn’t lie to me, would you? You always tell us to tell the truth.” I dug down deep into my memory and recalled my father’s answer to that same question: “Well, Santa Claus is real to those who continue to believe in him. I still believe in him and haven’t you noticed that there is always one present under the tree marked to Robert – from Santa Claus.” I decided then and there to make it one of my traditions too and have followed suit. I earnestly hope that my own grown children will respond in the same way to their children when that moment comes. For each of us, much of the fun goes away from Christmas when we no longer believe in Christmas. What fun it is to be someone’s secret Santa. Not those silly office organized gift exchanges but a real secret Santa. I have a friend who is terminally ill and it recently occurred to me to send her an angel skin nightgown which is silk on the outside and softly fuzzy on the inside. I sent it in an unmarked package with a note that said with love from Santa.
New traditions have been added to our repertoire. The first is boarding the Santa Cruise on Lake Geneva at 4:30 on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The boat follows the shoreline and pulls up to a pier that has a gingerbread House of Lights and Santa reads the names of the children on board who are on the nice list and the naughty list. I have yet to hear any names on the naughty list. Another new tradition is an evening touring zoo lights followed by dinner at RJ Grunts. A final new tradition and perhaps one of the favorites is a trip on the Holiday train on the el. Santa, as pictured here, rides in a middle open-air car and the entire train is festooned with lights and music. I recommended it to a longtime colleague of mine and she texted me the following: “It was wonderful! As we entered the Tunnel with the light flashing and Stevie Wonder singing Silver Bells – I was suddenly a kid again!”
P.S. There are also Elves Handing out Candy Canes.
Merry Christmas to Everyone!