If you missed the Christmas Story

Decades ago, my wings were cockeyed and my Mom was not happy. Dad was coming to church that day to see me in the Christmas Pageant. Of course, I was an angel and my first time in the Christmas story. I didn’t have to say anything but just look pretty. Ms. Elaine, who was Mom’s best friend and my Sunday school teacher, adjusted my wings just perfectly. How I loved to perform for Dad. In later years, I played piano solos in the small sanctuary at St Lukes Church in Chicago’s south side. In The Bleak Mid Winter was Mom’s all-time favorite. Dad admired my courage to memorize the notes.

Somehow, it all came back to me as I watched the children perform the same story at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Downers Grove. Joseph surprised me with such character and enthusiasm that you can tell he, actually in real life…. a girl named Ella, is a true, professional actor. Joseph’s brother, Cannon, showed amazing charisma as he sang the final song….a diversion from time and place…We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Mary had a beautiful presence and strong voice while the Christmas Star…a brilliant cloth covered star had a wonderful smile, which was about all I could see of the real person.

And the Angels…..they were dressed in a variety of gowns and white accessories looking their best in song for the hundreds of parishioners watching their performance. The Dads,Moms, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins; so excited to be a part of their lives. Or just friends like me who felt the expressive spirit of the true meaning of Christmas as they described the birth of the baby Jesus.

In later years for me, our church burned downed by arson and though some of us continued on to another church, I remember the blackened sanctuary that was damaged the most. But it could not destroy the memories of beautiful plays, piano recitals,  genuine pastoral sermons of such a close community and most of all, trusted friendships.

First Congregational United Church of Christ  is like that……united in faith, love, service and community. No matter who you are, or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome. The church offers a wide variety of children’s programs, music opportunities and mission trips. Its a place where questions are answered and you can grow together in respect, trust and build those same family memories. If you can’t attend,check out their service online.

There is always a place there…….. for another angel!

Merry Christmas

By Caryl Clem:

Songs vibrate cheer, tales of the Christmas Star

Wise Men traveling, Santa and his famous reindeer

Frosty the Snowman or a relative may come over

Adorned with scarves and bright red holly

Boisterous lawn valets waving to neighbors

Ready to help unload the world wide sleigh

Parading evergreens in holiday gowns

Bearing jeweled necklaces and lit crowns

Sweep into rooms hiding mounds of gifts

Beneath their huge green skirts

Dark chocolate mounds, cookies, a confectioners haven

Spill from clean socks into waiting pockets

No cure has been found to stop holiday treat craving

Family lore and traditions at fireplace fire

Hidden presents, those who co-conspire

Elaborate their adventures with laughter and humor

A fitting end to a busy year

Spend time with your loved ones dear

 

Chicago Christmas shows and other magic

  • Nutcracker Ballet  My first experience with the Nutcracker Ballet was actually at the Goodman Theater when I was six not sure who actually performed the ballet. I was taking ballet lessons at the time and was disappointed. I would never be able to stand on my toes like professional dancers. My first experience with the Joffrey Ballet was not in Chicago but in New York in the late 1970’s seeing the Nutcracker Ballet. However,  The Joffrey’s modernization that premiered last year re- imagines The Nutcracker set in a modest Chicago home rather than in a wealthy family’s mansion taking place just a few months before the Columbia Exposition in 1893.
  • Christmas Carol   My first experience with a Christmas Carol ended up with a broken arm and an overnight stay in a hospital. That is what we did in 1966 after I tripped on a step at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook; attending The Christmas Carol for my best friends birthday. The play is the heartwarming story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s discovery of kindness, compassion and redemption. Currently, you can purchase tickets at The Goodman Theatre.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life  Not only a wonderful movie with Jimmy Stewart, you can also see the radio play. American Blues Ensemble treats Chicago audiences to a live 1940s radio broadcast and has been the second longest running play in Chicago. The play is about 90 minutes and the production closes on January 5th.
  • Holiday Inn  Based on the classic film,Irving Berlin’s tells the story of Jim, who leaves the bright lights of show business behind to settle down on his farmhouse in Connecticut. Running about two hours and 30 minutes, the plays offers some great dances and songs including Heat Wave, and Blue Skies at the new Marriott Lincolnshire and performances are scheduled until January 6th.
  • Wonderland Express  Always a favorite of mine during the spring and summer, I had no idea that they had an amazing display for the winter holidays; one of Chicago’s top holiday destination. Walking through the Heritage garden, there are beautifully lit trees. You will see a gingerbread village and when you enter Nichols Hall, there are an abundance of trains even Thomas the tank engine. The city of Chicago is in miniature with over 80 buildings. It is also snowing inside though certainly not with frigid temperatures. The snow is 99 percent water with just a touch of vegetable oil so you can safely catch them in your mouth.

The best of the Polar Express

When the classic Christmas book came out in 1985, it was a present under my Christmas tree for me and my son. The Polar Express was the tale of a boy’s dreamlike train ride with other children to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The young boy asks for a bell from Santa.When the children return to the train, the boy realizes the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. The train drops him at his door and he goes to bed but in the morning, his sister finds one small box with the boy’s name on it among the presents. Inside is the silver bell! They hear it ring and ring but their parents cannot hear the sound at all.

Beautifully wrapped from Grandma, the hard cover was presented in a special gold, gilded box. The book sat comfortably next to the inspired sleigh bell. As my family grew, we read the Polar Express every year. Every year it was a new story. The book was a beautiful meditation on Christmas magic.

In 2004, Tom Hanks played the mystical conductor in the Polar Express, now a timeless holiday movie. Many classrooms watch the Polar Express at school as a parting gift to start the winter break every year. But the Polar Express movie has always scared me a little.The roller coaster train drama was a bit frightening and the elf workshops on the North Pole were cold factories; losing their graceful appeal that other North Pole stories usually offer.

For me, I just wanted to read the book, eat chocolate and pretend. Ultimately, believe.

This week, the last week of school in which I assist, elementary classes received tickets to ride the Polar Express in the IMC, better known as the library. Please wear pajamas and hot chocolate will be served.  Ms. Hendron, the library specialist, is a wonderful creator of magic herself. She has quickly transformed herself into the conductor on the Polar Express. Oh Boy, I can’t wait. Especially a time to wear my pj’s.

The library lights have been dimmed with sheeting overhead. White lights and silver snowflakes hang from the ceiling giving us the feeling of a cold snowy night as we take a seat on the benches that face a huge screen.  A fire roars in the background. We even get hats and our servers, her assistant, Ms. Wisdom, Ms. Kerfin, along with parent and grandparent helpers, pass out cups of hot chocolate. Each page of the book is highlighted on the big screen while being read by a screen reader. As the story proceeds, each student receives a string with Santa’s sleigh bell to take home. I got one too and we jiggled to make sure we could all hear them ring. One kindergarten boy told the staff that this was the best day of his life. Mine too.

If you want to take a ride on a public Polar Express, Rail Events Productions announces service on board THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride at Chicago Union Station this holiday season. Groups of 20 or more are eligible for a 10% discount which must be booked over the phone at (312) 471-2501.  The fun doesn’t end on Christmas. Use promo code 12DAYS for $12 off tickets on any train Dec. 26-Jan 1!

However,though many schools and neighborhoods are offering the Polar Express experience, not much can top the magnificent event of listening and watching the Polar Express book at Elizabeth Ide School.  Even better than with my own children.

And when I got home, I could still hear my library Polar Express sleigh bell ring!!!

 

Season’s greetings

Mom ordered her Christmas cards from Miles Kimball with our names printed inside; John, Mavis and Karla. It was a months long project in November to select the perfect card. My father owned a business and Mother included clients on her list. Simple, but elegant was her theme. Miles Kimball still offers a unique card selection with free personalization. And the Christmas cards she would get from others through the 1950’s to the early 1990’s always decorated a closet door frame in the living rooms of two homes. That was how she displayed her friendships…making sure the cover would flap open so visitors could see who they were from.

One grandmother talks about displaying them on string over her bed so that she can dream about her friends and adventures of Christmas at night. Wreaths composed of Christmas cards became popular in later years. And creating Christmas trees with cards was another idea.

Seven billion greeting cards are purchased every year. Annual retail sales of greeting cards are estimated at more than $7.5 billion. Nine out of every ten households buy greeting cards each year. The birthday card is one of the favorites. Top selling seasonal cards are Christmas and holidays cards. These account for more than six percent of all seasonal card sales. Valentine’s day is the next greeting card seller followed by Mothers, Fathers day and Easter according to the Greeting Card Association.

Today, gather up your favorite type of ribbon, some form of wall adhesive and clips. You only need a few items to create this easy clip on Holiday card display. Using old window shutters or empty frames to display your Christmas cards will give your home a rustic holiday feel.

Some also use garland with cards added that will be displayed on a staircase or garland around a door frame. Strips of velvet ribbon or satin are also used to display cards and you can purchase tabletop Christmas card holders. Christmas tree memory boards are available for sale or you can create your own bulletin board decorated with fabric to display a collage of cards and photos.

Holiday photo cards of family have been extremely popular over the decades but ours as children were black and white. Many have interesting backgrounds,some families dressed in matching pajamas by the Christmas tree or encircled with holiday lights. There are hundreds of ideas for unique family photos. For me, family photo cards are a little scary. A school psychologist once shared a story that almost every family Christmas photo she received had a crisis behind the smiling faces of the family that sent the card.

I guess the best Season greetings cards for me are the ones that tell me a little about the sender if I am not in touch; those with the added notes in their own pen. Those that ask how you are, those that hope for the best, those that thank you for your friendship, those that wish happiness for your loved ones and most of all, those that share blessings for a safe, healthy and gracious holiday season. And, of course, a happy New Year. That’s all I need.

Germanic traditions impact Chicago Christmas culture

By Caryl Clem:

Treasured Christmas memories ignite the passion within us to decorate and celebrate holiday customs. Smelling fresh evergreens in the chilly crisp air erases years as you hunt down the perfect tree with childhood excitement. Later with friends and family transforming bare branches into a living room reigning queen topped by the family heirloom Angel.  Pine cones adorn a red bowed wreath that hangs on the front door, promising a circle of friendship and goodwill within. An Advent Calendar hangs on the wall near the candelabra.   Mistletoe hangs around with sprigs of holly. These customs have Germanic roots.

In the dark months of winter in forests deep, Norsemen stocked their homes with evergreen branches mixed with mistletoe and holly to ward off evil spirits. Since these plants stayed green through the cruel winter season, it was proof these plants had powerful, magic. As Christianity replaced pagan beliefs, St. Boniface declared evergreens represented everlasting life. Ballads circulated throughout Germany praising the mighty  O Tannenbaum by the 1550.  A wealthy German Duchess gave a gift of a decorated Christmas tree with wax candles and blown glass ornaments to the royalty in Paris about 1717. Another German royal gave a tree to a king in England.  Hand carved wooden angels hanging from branches or crowning the top, another Germanic custom.

Advent Calendars

The wife of a Protestant Pastor in Germany during the 1880’s had a little boy who kept asking how many more days until Christmas.  She had a great idea; she decorated 24 boxes with a hidden treat inside.  Each day on the Christmas countdown, the boy opened one box to find a Lebkuchen to eat. Several years later at a printing company in Munich, a young man is busy creating an advent calendar to market. The fun to open doors appears after 1920, popular chocolates add to the enjoyment in the late 1950’s.

Shopping via German Style features an outdoor festival of unique food and decorations.  Several markets are available, check out the online home page for Christkindlmarket for inspiration.

At the Christmas Eve Service, I love giving full throttle to my voice during, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.  The composer is none other than German composer, Mendelssohn. Ironically, the Methodist minister who adapted the lyrics to fit this melody, did not know that Mendelssohn never intended it to be a hymn.

Holiday homeland favorites are relished such as red cabbage, sauerbraten, potato dumplings and  Pork SchnitszelThe midday meal beverages star mulled wine, flaming Fire Tong wine /rum punch,  or a hearty eggnog toast. Traditional German desserts of gingerbread men, Stollen, Lebkuchen, or Pfeffernuesse cookies. Many recommendations of Chicago restaurants can be found on Yelp.

German neighborhoods include Old Town, Northwest Side between Chicago Avenue and Fullerton Avenue.  North Avenue had the nickname of “German Broadway. In 1900, one in every four residents was from German descent. Exploring German culture can be done at this cultural center and museum called Dankhaus.

 

 

They are talking about advent calendars

Because I am generally one of the first they meet in the main hallway by the front door at school, the kindergarten through second grade share it all with me. We talk of movies, weekend sleepovers, weather, new hats, backpacks, who is sick, who they miss, who was not nice on the bus or who they helped. Even are favorite food especially candy is up for debate.

And two have shared the excitement of Mom purchasing an advent calendar that talks about following the nativity story. Though I can’t share everything with them especially about God and religion, I do acknowledge that I believe. One calendar actually produced a gift of Lindt chocolate every day and another a tree of magnetic ornaments.

Today, a huge variety of advent calendars can be found with different themes; some in the form of sports, technology and I found one with elves. Some are extremely large and three-dimensional like dollhouses. Some use Lego and star wars pieces for children.

During the 1960’s, I would receive one in a large brown envelope from family that was an artists masterpiece celebrating the birth of Jesus. Little cardboard or even paper windows opened each day with a prayer or bible verse from the first day in December. There was a double window to be opened on Christmas Eve. We never sneaked a look ahead at the surprise picture or message, neither did my own children when they received their advent calendar gifts in the 1990’s. I remember one that looked like a giant Christmas tree with angels on the outside pointing to the windows located on the tree that looked like different ornaments.

Vermont Christmas Company offers a wonderful selection of advent calendars. One of the worlds largest collection of calendars with over 300 designs. You can also save 30% off even if you are starting a little late into the month.

For adults, there is are daily wine or whiskey calendars with windows or cardboard openings stuffed with cheese for snacking as well.

Last year, only a couple days before Christmas Eve, I received a gift from a student which was an advent calendar. A little late to celebrate the early days of the month so it took me forever to figure out what is was…even my daughter who is 29 asked why certain areas were numbered. Shaped like a dollhouse, it was a bath and body calendar. One day there was a small container of body lotion, body sponge, scented oils, and even chap stick.

 

Zoo lights in Chicago

Traveling to the Zoos in and around Chicago was not something I could do as a child during the holidays. My early experiences of zoo trips were feeding the polar bears at Brookfield during the summer and attending the Children’s/Farm Zoo at Lincoln Park. My Aunt lived in the Old Town area so she would spend time with me at Lincoln Park and then we would have dinner at the Pickel Barrel restaurant.  Every table had pickles and popcorn; sometimes a clown would be there blowing up free balloons.

Lincoln Park Zoo is a 35-acre zoo located in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Illinois. The zoo was founded in 1868, making it among the oldest zoos in North America. It is also one of a few free admission zoos in the United States. What I remember most is that Bushman the Gorilla died there and was transferred to the Field Museum; always a scare for me stuffed in a case. I loved the Farm Zoo at Lincoln Park which was filled with play stations of animals. The main barn featured a steer and pigs. It was so popular that horse and beef cattle barns were added. Now The Dairy Barn houses goats and cows, where visitors can learn about the milking process. There was also a Childrens zoo now owned by the Pritzger family. This is a home for North American animals that can let young people get nose to nose with red wolves, black bears, North American river otters and American beavers.

ZooLights, presented by ComEd and Invesco QQQ at Lincoln Park Zoo has been Chicago’s holiday tradition for 24 years. The one-of-a-kind experience offers fun, free, family-oriented holiday celebrations that feature luminous displays and incredible seasonal activities…all under the glow of 2.5 million lights!   4:30-9 p.m.
December 2018: 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31*
*(early closure of 8 PM on the 31st)
January 2019: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6

Brookfield Zoo,also known as the Chicago Zoological Park,[2][3] is a zoo located in the Chicagosuburb of Brookfield, Illinois. It houses around 450 species of animals in an area of 216 acres (87 ha). It opened on July 1, 1934,[4] and quickly gained international recognition for using moats and ditches instead of cages to separate animals from visitors and from other animals. Yes, you could feed the Polar bears which is no longer an option but you can feed the giraffes and you can actually mingle with penguins.  Another strong memory of Brookfield through the decades, was the fountain named after the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The fountain’s spouting water can reach up to 60 feet high. Another favorite was Ibex mountain where the goats appeared behind the rock but was raised in 2008.

Holiday Lights is presented by ComEd and Meijer currently in their37th year and my children were able to attend some of the first shows. They still go to Brookfield.Actually this is considered the  longest running Lights Festival with over One-Million Twinkling LED Lights. You can see a 41-Foot Talking Tree, a Skating Rink, Carolers, Ice Carvers, and more. The skating rink is new this year.

Location: Zoowide

Date: Saturdays and Sundays, December 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 22-23,

Ballerina jewelry boxes: Top of the list in gifts this year

Every girl had one. I wanted one too but slightly different from all my friends. I searched from house to house, asking to see their jewelry boxes, never quite seeing the one. The ballerina had to be just the right size, spin at just the right pace with the perfect music to set off her magic twirl. Inside some jewelry boxes, the fabric was cheap.  I wanted either pink satin or velvet. I had taken ballerina lessons in South Shore throughout kindergarten until third grade. I knew what I wanted. I knew what I was talking about when it came to ballerina jewelry boxes. The hardware had to be gold brass and the paint an off white on the outside; a small lock and key would be preferable. That French provincial look that matched. Most were not personalized as they are today. In the 1960’s, Karla with a K, of all things, wasn’t a popular name.

Many, then, were also made with lead paint. Still, a massive collection of vintage ballerina jewelry boxes are available on Etsy. Some have been refinished and labeled… no lead free oil based paint!

Did you know that today in 2018, after reading an article on the most popular gift for seven year old girls, the ballerina jewelry box was in the top five? Children are still inspired by the ballet, taking early lessons to learn elegance and decorum. And dressing in the elaborate ballerina tutu which makes them a graceful star.

In the 1990’s, I don’t recall my daughter ever wanting one. Instead, she had a beautiful water globe with a ballerina in the center. You could turn a small key on the bottom and the ballerina would gracefully spin to music while shaking the dancing glitter.Her Godmother had given her the gift. She still has the globe that mesmerizes her every time she admires it at 29 years of age. And she shared this with her Godmother on a surprise visit that it was still one of her favorites gifts. They had not seen each other in several years. Unexpectedly, my daughter had shared this not knowing that in only a few months after,her godmother would pass away.

Today, to purchase some of the best in new ballerina jewelry boxes,  the Pottery barn kids offer some unique items. Sears online has several choices in musical jewelry boxes and many are currently marked down. They offer safe places to store your sparkling treasures.

After searching online to research the different types of ballerina jewelry boxes, I found one from the 1980s at Etsy. There are three divided areas on top and one full drawer on the bottom. It is pink satin inside with velvet trim and it plays one of my favorite songs, You light up my life.

Oh boy…guess what is going on my Christmas list. Maybe I will just break down and buy for myself. It’s already favored by five people! Yes, these musical boxes must be popular after all.

Chicago’s Navy Pier

My childhood memories of Navy Pier were just that, a pier that was cold, dark and gloomy. A pier that was falling apart, in transition, and far from the dazzle we have today. In fact, the last of the World War II generation remembers it as a training ground to fight. Over the decades, Navy Pier has demonstrated a variety of purpose.

Navy Pier was designed as a municipal pier in 1916 and host to a prison for draft dodgers during World War I. It was named Navy Pier in 1927 as a tribute to navy veterans who served in the first World War. In World War II, the pier was used a center to train pilots and according to Navy Pier’s current website, over 200 planes can still be found at the bottom of Lake Michigan. During these training years, tens of thousands of boys that were drafted used the facility and could also exercise in a huge gym, cafeteria and theater for entertainment.

After the war in 1946, Navy Pier hosted students from the University of Illinois for a two year program though they did have to finish their four year degree at the home campus in Champaign/Urbana. Finally to complete a degree at one campus, Chicago’s Circle Campus ( an new annex of the University of Illinois) was born in 1965. At that time, Navy Pier needed a new face lift.

Since the 20th Century, Navy Pier has been transformed into acres of parks, fine dining, fabulous cruises, a ferris wheel that holds 300 people, and much more. As a result of much to do at the Pier and year round events, Navy Pier proudly holds the number one tourist attraction position in the Midwest. Cruises on the Odyssey, Spirit of Chicago and Mystic Blue offer special holiday festivities and great ideas to spend New Years Eve with your loved ones.

Besides taking a cruise, some of the restaurants can provide a great eating experience and waterfront views. Some of the favorites are Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Big City Chicken, Frankie’s Pizza, and Tiny Tavern where you can stop for a cocktail.

Presently, the Fifth Third Bank is sponsoring Winter Wonderfest at the pier Friday, November 30, 2018 – Sunday, January 6, 2019. featuring 170,000 square feet of carnival rides, giant slides, holiday-themed activities, and Indoor Ice Skating Rink, and more.

Celebrate your Chicago New Year’s Eve. Book your tickets to the 7th Annual Chicago Resolution Gala. The Resolution Gala is the top Chicago New Year’s Eve party going down this year. Every year up to 3,000 guests gather inside of the Grand Ballroom to ring in their New Year. Celebrate your night with food, drinks, a top live DJ, and the perfect intro to 2018 in Chicago!