Christmas reflections 2021

By Caryl Clem

Holiday’s allow us to travel through time

Bouncing back and forth between then and now

Cherished Christmas tales lit by fireplace flames

Imagination casts a spell over moonlit lawns

As children fight sleep to spy

Or hear the whisper of a silent sleigh

Pulled by reindeers hooves on frozen stardust

Trails in the starlight sky

Shining proof he has stopped by

Musical bells heard below

Blend with Secret Santa’s HO! HO! HO

Every tradition and custom feels brand new

Timeless wonder the magic surrounding Christmas

Another year passes with grace

As we reflect on the love in our lives

Eager to begin another year

Celebrating promise and hope

Stepping forward into a Happy New Year.

Wishing you a Charlie Brown Christmas

By Caryl Clem

On the short list of my holiday movie favorites is Charlie Brown. The fact I have aged and he has not, I do not hold against him. I am an unswerving Charlie Brown Peanuts fan. Imagine my amazement when I discovered Charlie Brown at Christmas was almost canceled. The fact Charlie Brown has performed for over 50 years this time of year borders on a Christmas miracle.

Charlie Brown surfaced in the newspaper comics in October 1950. Charles Schultz his creator wove the trails of life seen by his young characters into Sunday morning remedy.  Ironically, Lucy’s advice for 5 cents echoed the new price increase for newspapers that year. Charlie faced wistful, nonreciprocal love: sports failures, academic challenges, and Lucy’s domineering force with gut wrenching persistence. He never gave up in spite of failure after failure. He sheltered Linus with his Security blanket understanding that feeling secure was a form of success.

In 1965, producer Lee Mendelson urged Schultz and Disney animator Melendez to consider expanding Charlie Brown’s audience to  a television 30 minute special sponsored by Coca Cola.  Mendelson confided CBS executives didn’t think it would work. Skeptics claimed it was slow moving, too religious, not lighthearted like the popular comic strip and diverted from what children expected to see. Determined to win approval, a week before the final deadline Mendelson submitted his final draft. In spite of the initial misgivings, CBS was aired the special on December 9, 1965.

The New York Times stated that 15 million watched the first A Charlie Brown animated cartoon.  As the story unfolded a young boy feeling frustrated by his inability to connect to the festive Christmas spirit; he discovered the magic of Christmas at the end. Every heart in the audience must have been touched by Charlie’s dilemma since an Emmy and the Peabody awards were given for outstanding children’s programming in 1966. A Charlie Brown Christmas is on PBS at 7:30 EST.

Charles Schultz used his genius to weave a story within the limits of reality. Charlie Brown animated cartoons were the first to children voices instead of adults.  Peter Robin’s was 8 ½ years old filling a tall order for a jubilant Christmas ready kid sounding depressed or weary when reading a Charlie Brown script. All the Peanut characters voices were done by kids, a crucial element that makes Charlie Brown so believable.

The holidays are a mix of stress and elation. Remember, Charlie Brown always bounced back, never gave up on hope in the future. I am Wishing Everyone A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Home alone and more of John Hughes

It had occurred to me to write about this Chicago based movie last year since in 2020 we would be celebrating its movie anniversary, produced in 1990 but the draft had been put on hold. Everybody was writing about the infamous movie’s anniversary. Then I talked to a student at school this month and he could not stop talking about his field trip from Downers Grove, Il to the northside. He wrote about it in his first grade journal. He saw the Home Alone house! The Home Alone house is located at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois. and so I pulled some pictures online for him to verify. Oh my,,,,that was it though I had to be extremely careful. He knew the difference between older pictures of the home that did not have a fence around the house. The fence was fairly new to the property; keeping current onlookers at a distance.

My 30 + year old daughter and I have taken several field trips to the house too; some years ago with Starbucks in our hands. No fence! Home alone was and still is one of the favorite movies in our family. My daughter became a connoisseur of John Hughes films especially produced in Chicago. Another family favorite was Sixteen Candles is a 1984 American coming-of-age comedy film starring Molly RingwaldMichael Schoeffling, and Anthony Michael Hall. It was written and directed by John Hughes in his directorial debut. In 1985, he produced the Breakfast Club. It stars Emilio EstevezAnthony Michael HallJudd NelsonMolly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy as teenagers from different high school cliques who spend a Saturday in detention with their authoritarian assistant principal. (Paul Gleason). Again, we traveled to Maine North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois, which had been closed in May 1981 and filming took place here for the Breakfast Club and Molly Ringwalds home in Sixteen Candles. Again, Sixteen Candles was mainly filmed in the north suburbs of Chicago. The Baker house is located at 3022 Payne Street in Evanston. The church (Glencoe Union Church – 263 Park Avenue) and parking lot where the final scenes take place are in Glencoe. Glencoe has become our favorite spot for a field trip to walk the beach.

Home Alone premiered on November 10, 1990, in Chicago, and entered wide release in the United States on November 16, 1990. With a total gross of $476.7 million, it was the highest-grossing live-action comedy until 2011. An eight-year-old troublemaker must protect his house from a pair of burglars when he is accidentally left home alone by his family during Christmas vacation. Home Alone has won one award after another and considered one of the best Christmas films of all time. A sequel, Home Alone 2, Lost in New York was released in 1992. According to NBC Chicago, this year you can actually book a one night stay at the Home Alone house this holiday season. This can be found on Airbnb’s website for only 25 dollars but you must pay for travel expenses to Chicago.

Who burned the St. Lukes Methodist Church on the south side of Chicago during the holidays?

We had just finished our Christmas pageant in the sanctuary. I was only 10 in December of 1965 and didn’t like being in shows since I was pretty shy back then. I think I was angel because I vaguely remember my mother and Ms Elaine, my Sunday School teacher helping with my wings. But I was going to do this because my father was going to come and watch. He was not a regular church-goer as I called then like me and my Mom. We attended St. Lukes Methodist Church at 93rd and Paxton on the Southside of Chicago. My first religious experience. My mother sometimes taught Sunday school and made new friendships. It is where I also met my friend Sue who I still talk to today. The pageant, however, is not a strong memory because of the arson fire that took place days later. In January of 1966, one arson fire followed eight days later by a suspected second arson fire at St. Luke Methodist Church.

The church served only about 100 families but we enjoyed the smaller space for it gave my family more opportunity to be involved. After the first fire, we were hopeful due to some water damage, we still gathered hymnals to save as well as other remnants and church carried on. My friend of over 50 years, Sue and her brother retrieved quite a few things from the burning building. She still has two of the small footed bowls, above, that the ladies served the cranberry sauce in at their turkey dinners. And her brother had painted a paint by number of the last supper or the face of Jesus that he retrieved. But it was the second fire that destroyed the pulpet. It was completely blackened with soot and as a young girl, I remember thinking how could anyone destroy Jesus…his image. My mother just told me she thought it was a young man who came to the church off and on but had some mental issues. Even after researching, I don’t think anyone was arrested for the crime. The remainder of the church was torn down.

According to the History of Southlawn church, picture above, around 1965, the Calumet Heights Community began undergoing racial change and transition, as did Southlawn. African-Americans were welcomed. In January 1966, one arson fire followed eight d Some believed that the fires were related to then pastor, John K. Brown’s active support of civil rights. Following the arson fires the St. Luke congregation was merged with Southlawn. In 1968, the Methodist Church abolished the Central Jurisdiction. Portions were added to the Rock River Conference which was the predecessor Conference of The Northern Illinois Annual Conference. The merger created The United Methodist. I did go through the confirmation process at Southlawn but it was just not the same.

My friend Sue believed that the church was too small and has to be subsidized—a lot of force mergers at the time. Plus negotiations were going on for the merger with another denomination to become the United Methodist church. She distinctly remembers discussions at her house about the 100 families in the church. Her dad insisted they could get $1000 pledges from each family to rebuild and most members were in agreement. It is was her understanding that politically it was just not to be allowed because of finances and the merge with Southlawn was forced by the bishop at the time. The racial discrimination and further integration of the neighborhood may have played a large role but Sue or I never heard any issues about that: all she heard was the financial issues.

Legacy of bookmarks

I was attending a meeting with other assistants and teachers in our southwest suburban school district that contains three schools. As soon as I walked in a mother who now works in the district flags me down with her son beside her who is now in fifth grade. It took me only a brief minute but she said,” Do you remember my son? “I remembered him in kindergarten; a delightful boy who was a joy to work with and now a fan of the Greenbay Packers, like me. “He still uses all the bookmarks you made for him and he nods with pride,” she said.

The bookmarks???? Five years ago, it began….before the pandemic. When I started making bookmarks to celebrate all holidays in our school building. The school hosts kindergarten-2nd grade while the two other schools supported 3rd-5th and 6th -8th.  First, I began making them for the classroom I was in which was usually kindergarten and would try to personalize each with their name. Then, I would create a bookmark of something they enjoyed such as a unicorn which I distinctly remembering how popular. It also depended on the time of year or holiday.

They were three-dimensional in some way whether it be fancy heart stickers for Valentine’s Day or the great snowman with delicate snowflakes for winter break. And everybody usually got their favorite colors if my memory served me well. Sometimes if I was really in the mood, bookmarks would have an original saying such as follow your heart for Valentines Day.

After my first attempts, I would have the occasional student from another class ask if I had a book mark and so it began. I started making more….just in case. And for many that would go on to the next grade, my bookmarks followed. They would see me in the hallway and ask if I was still making them for my current students. I always had extras… given with approval. They knew where to find me. Again, never missing a student who needed that bookmark for their favorite book.

Last year, I did create bookmarks at the end of the year for a first grade class. Each in a plastic bag with a glow worm necklace following pandemic rules. They weren’t impressed. I had lost my touch with few stickers and variety. No, there is a difference in maturity levels in first grade.

I am helping in the kindergarten and have not made one this year. Maybe after the beautiful message from the fifth grader, following my heart and God, my latest bookmark beginnings will celebrate the upcoming holidays with the best snowman art I can create. But again, that is not what they like. It is just creating something handmade which is special to them even if it lacks variety. This is their first year of school and generally they are just more accepting of mistakes; trying our best, forgetting all the rest. Forging ahead with patience and love this Thanksgiving break…….the bookmarks are almost done.

Decades of Chicagoland holidays

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the late 1950’s, for my Dad, it was the Christmas Tree. In the picture, this was my second Christmas, My second tree. The Christmas tree that was real. Not the fake trees that were first metal, silver and generally had coordinated ball ornaments that were all the same. The metal tree also rotated in a stand to music with floor lights. My father had to have an 8ft real tree with over 600 colored bulb lights where two lights of the same color were never together, bubble lights which were effectively scattered as well as intricate ornaments  placed with care on each branch to compliment the space. Tinsel was hung one string at a time. And that was it…sometimes he would put colored lights to frame his creation around the front window facing the street. The tree took hours, sometimes days to complete but it was his masterpiece and still remembered by many today. After Dad passed away , I tried to carry on the tradition in the 1970’s for my Mother. She switched to a fake, green tree with the new Italian lights and garland while living in Dolton. My own children had the same in the 1990’s only with new ornaments, bows and taller since it sat in a foyer at our home in Downers Grove.

What about other holiday decorations famous through the years? Over 108 years, the Chicago downtown tree has always been a major a favorite to visit. The first official Christmas tree in the city of Chicago was installed in 1913 in Grant Park and lit on Christmas Eve by then-mayor Carter Harrison. This first tree was a 35-foot (11 m) tall spruce tree. Beginning with Christmas 1966 the official Chicago Christmas tree was placed in Civic Center Plaza, now known as Daley Plaza. At that time, it was over 70ft tall and made of several trees. I was mesmerized as a child though my children were not as excited. With the exception of 1981, the tree was installed in Daley Plaza each year until 2015 where it moved to Millenium Park. The Civic Center now celebrates the 25th year of Christkindlmarket. The booths were always fun to visit with my children occasionally buying a mug of the best hot chocolate.

At two years old, my son began calling it the Christmas Tree House. His first trip was in 1989 and that is what stuck with our family all these years. Throughout the 1990’s, my son and my daughter traveled there every year for Christmas and just could not stop staring; could not be pulled away regardless of the weather. Some called it Santa’s house, others, the Christmas House. However, it was the most beautiful holiday home in Downers Grove created by Diane and Rion Goyette.

More great places today!

Lincoln Park Zoolights 
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago
On the north side of Chicago, for over 20 years Lincoln Park Zoo has provided a beautiful light display of over 2 million lights. You can also find beautiful ice carvings throughout the zoo grounds and other holiday related activities such as ice skating where you can bring your own skates or rent a pair.

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo 8400 31st St. Brookfield, Il 60513
Just south of Chicago in Brookfield at the zoo, you can see over 30 years of celebration for the holiday season. Visitors can be dazzled by over a million lights and can enjoy caroling with the animals and special treat with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Several corporations have set up trees set to music and one that you can actually interact.

Chicago Botanic Garden is bringing back their experiential Lightscape experience for another year. The awe-inspiring display is set along a mile-long path where visitors can admire light installations by artists from around the world. Lightscape is open on select dates from November 12, 2021 to January 2, 2022.

Morton Arboretum is wonderful place but tickets are currently sold out.

Aurora Festival of Lights One of the largest free outdoor drive-through holiday light displays in Northern Illinois, the Aurora Festival of Lights, returns for its 15th year in 2021 with dazzling displays that will delight both adults and children. The light show begins the day after Thanksgiving, Friday Nov 26, and runs through Dec 26. Sunday  through Saturday 5-9pm. Last year, the festival had over 50,000 cars. Buses are welcome too.

Where is the Wish Book?

After leafing through a small catalog mailer checking out the two page kid section, it was certainly far from grand as I remembered during my time when the Wish Book came in the mail at our house….just about this time of year, every year. For those that remember, The Wish Book was every child’s hopes and dreams to be eternally satisfied in gifts from Santa for the holiday season. The Wish Book was every parents dream to keep us busy marking the pages, even cutting out, and highlighting the most important choices that would be wrapped and placed under our Christmas tree. I made excuses to stay on the potty longer than usual, my posterior sore just to intensely study and plan with my Wish Book. This was no flimsy flyer. Published by Sears in the forties, fifties and 1960’s holiday additions where over 400 pages in length. In 1964,1968, and 1969 proudly boasted over 600 pages and it took two hands to carry. I finally cut out the Barbie I wanted and carried that around until Christmas.

How beautiful the dolls…. dressed in ruffles and fairyland colors just like it says in the book in 1964. There was Betsy Wetsy, the tiny kissing cousins, the exceptional Thumbelina. Barbie, Ken, Midge, Allan and Skipper, Barbies new dream house, vinyl cases and sculptured doll carriages priced as low as $4.98. Then there were pages of vanities with neatly filled cosmetic trays, Little Hostess Buffet, All in I kitchen in corrugated card board as well as all steel play kitchens and fully furnished Split level houses of sturdy steel for under $10.00 along with phonographs that never needed a tube replacement. There were tuck and touch needlepoint sets that were never that easy. There were paint by number which were my favorite that I still do.

Of course there were the 3 speed bikes, Gilbert train sets, Ford J slot cars, Gemini rocket to blast to the moon,walkiestalkies with code buttons to send secret messages. There were the electric build it sets and basic science club kits, chemical sets and wood burning sets in all shapes and sizes with an actual analog computer for only 5.88. Gas and battery powered miniature cars and planes and at one point motorized erector sets. Make things work boys, with your own 53 piece workshop with a workbench to match for under 20 dollars. And there were plenty of guns from the newest assault rifle to the western marshal outfit.

We both had view masters with our collection of pictures from Cinderella, Bambi, Batman and the Man from Uncle as well as an etch a sketch for under 3 dollars. I guess those were like our cell phones today. We both played music. For the boys, it was Roy Rogers Guitar, an accordion and girls tended to receive pianos in all different sizes.

And what about the games for the entire family? There was dominos, chess, checkers of all types,along with CandyLand, Cootie House, Dr. Kildare, Lie Detector, Dick Tracy, Snakes Alive, battery operated table top Pinballs.

And believe it or not, my wish book has finally arrived once again. Not in the form of back breaking print but I can peruse through the pages of several Sears catalogs from my time at Wishbookweb.com. I can thumb through the entire catalog while sitting on the potty with my phone.

I wonder if I could place an order too!

Aww…..the good old days!

Chatty Cathy is 60 years old!

I was fortunate because my father was a home movie nut…all of them successfully transferred for every birthday and holiday so I have not forgotten the dolls and toys I got for both. My first baby doll was Tiny Tears and I received a to die for blue carriage under the Christmas tree to walk her in. And a new friend for Tiny Tears sat in a box; Chatty Cathy with auburn hair, soft face and cloth speaker, and pull string in the back. I still have her but a few years after getting her when I was in elementary school, a friend cut her bangs and put her in the bath tube. She gargled for a long time and I cried. Today, however, she is mute.

Chatty Cathy was a pull string “talking” doll manufactured by the Mattel toy company from 1959 to 1965. The doll was first released in stores and appeared in television commercials beginning in 1960, with a suggested retail price of $18.00, catalog advertisements usually priced the doll under $10.00. Chatty Cathy was on the market for six years and was the second most popular doll of the 1960s.  Brunette and auburn haired versions of the doll were introduced in 1962 and 1963 respectively as well as an African American doll. The original Chatty had a red dress replaced by a pink and white striped dress with a white pinafore called “Pink Peppermint Stick.”  There was also a red velvet coat and her Sunday dress ( still have with a few threads missing)

Chatty Cathy “spoke” one of eleven phrases at random when the “chatty ring” protruding from its upper back was pulled. I love you, please take me with you, let’s play house, please brush my hair, will you play with me, were some of the words but her mouth did not move.

If you research the value of the vintage Chatty Cathy doll, you will find a variety of dolls in different conditions, many different versions and different prices but a well-preserved Chatty can get alot of money….actually thousands of dollars.

Santa images through time

By Caryl Clem

In ancient folklore, Santa was an elf, gnome, or after Christianity, a Saint.  Children were taught that good behavior brought gifts or if naughty, his evil brother would punish them. Santa was not approachable for special requests.

The transition of Santa from the supernatural realm into human form was shaped by literature.  The 1822 poem by Clement Moore gave Santa a magical, friendly personality combining a mix of legends. Thomas Nast, an 1860’s cartoonist drew pictures of Santa talking to boys and girls that appeared in Harper’s weekly in 1863.  In the following years he included the sleigh, reindeer, and North Pole toy shop. In 1902, the author of Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum creates The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus implanting the wonder of Santa Claus to all readers.

The catalog cover for a 1906 Eaton Department Store shows a serious Claus thinking about Christmas.  In an effort to boost sales, Coca Cola hired Haddon Sundblom in 1931: who created the jolly grandfather Santa Claus figure we love today.  The 1932 advertising pictures featured a smiling, red suited Santa against a green background.   The laughing Santa was an instant hit, kids wanted to meet this charming version of humanity and magic.  The following years of advertising show an active, laughing Santa busy spreading goodwill.

Santa popularity can be found in the Santa Surfing competition in California to raise money for autism to a mountain rappelling Santa in Asheville, North Carolina.  The Salvation Army started to collect donations by Santa clad unemployed men in 1890 to raise money to feed needy families. The Santa photography business of kids sitting on Santa’s lap started in the 1940’s.  Santa was available for requests. Stories of kids writing Santa Claus letters and making Christmas wishes dominate movie themes today.  Santa Village ceramics, Santa figures, Santa dinnerware, so many ways to bring Santa into your home.

Costumes at Christmas were a Victorian custom that is experiencing a rebirth. You can be a Santa elf or any character from a Christmas legend at a get together or party. Santa is more than one figure, able to change forms in the spirit of good will and generosity. Enjoy living as a Santa this holiday season!  Let his magic inspire you!