They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. My apologies to Charles Dickens but those words aptly sum up the holiday season. Never is there a time during the year where the joys can be so immeasurable and the sorrows so intense. And the more years you have under your belt the more memories you have to cloud the current reality. It seems like the thermometer of the season can go either way, often day-to-day or hour to hour and eventually the season is measured by the overall average temperature of happiness or sadness.
Are all those holiday experiences and memories precious or stigmatic? I’m not really sure. All I know is that, for me, every year the the holiday season is an adventure in feelings and emotions. So, with that in mind, I am going to dedicate my blog this month to the recounting of current and past holiday stories. Do they help to make the season bright or just reinforce what once was but is not to be again? That determination is solely up to you.
Growing up the holidays were always big in my house – it was a magical time. And although we were not rich by any stretch of the imagination, we always had a lot to be thankful for on Christmas Day. Our house was filled with holiday music the likes of which I still treasure. My dad was a huge fan of the “Big Bands” and so our holiday music consisted of Christmas albums by the likes of Guy Lombardo, Lester Lanin, The Three Suns and the incomparable Mitch Miller. We always had a meatless Christmas Eve followed by a big Christmas Day dinner at my Grandmother’s. Then we would get packed up into the car and travel to my other grandmother’s house where we would spend the rest of the day with my dad’s side of the family. Christmas cookies, homemade bread, turkey and all the trimmings, football on the television and lots and lots of presents under the tree. That was the basic game plan for the day. But my memories are not so much tied up in what we did that day, but with the events and the traditions leading up to the “big dance.”
The first big event came every year on the first Saturday in December – the annual family trek to Downtown Chicago to see Santa at the Carson Pirie Scott store and go Christmas shopping. We had a route and a game plan and we followed it for years and years. We would park the car at a parking lot near Congress and State Streets and begin our journey – first stop the Sears Roebuck store. I can still smell the ‘pine-like” aroma that came wafting out of the small incense burning log cabins they sold. In my mind I can clearly see the small puffs of smoke coming out of the chimneys in the display as we made our way up the escalator to the toys floor. You see, the main highlight of the trip was the fact that every year my parents gave us five dollars to spend on anything we wanted, no restrictions. It felt like we were given a million bucks and the decision as to what to spend it on was agonizing. We combed through every toy department several times before making those decisions. It was heaven.
Our annual trek which began at Sears proceeded north on State Street to The Fair Store (how many of my Chicago friends even remember that store), Carsons, Wiebolts, Walgreens and the final destination, the piece de resistance, Marshall Fields! As we made our trek and purchased our gifts my dad would hike back to the parking lot and deposit our treasures in our car, often making the trip several times during the course of the day. We never worried about someone breaking into the car and stealing them – that just didn’t happen at that time. It was a day of buying presents for loved ones, looking at the amazing holiday windows, getting to spend our five dollars, putting a donation into the Salvation Army bucket, listening to Christmas carolers on the street, passing the street vendors hawking roasted chestnuts and praying it would snow to make the day absolutely perfect. And to top it all off, the icing on the cake was dinner at Millers Pub. At that time Millers Pub was on Adams street and every year as we made our trek back south on State Street we would stop to have dinner at Millers capping off the day. Even now, Millers Pub means Christmas to me. The pub was always jammed packed and we learned early on to adjust our holiday routine to include a stop at Millers as we made our trek north on State Street to make a reservation for that evening. We got seated a lot faster that way. And after many years of doing this we had our routine down to a science. I so looked forward to this day every year. We continued this tradition all through my college years although, after a while, I decided that a trip to Santa’s lap was not to be part of the plan anymore.
That was the first Saturday in December every year for at least twenty years. And then no more. My parents moved to Florida and I stayed in Chicago. I changed my personal tradition and started making a similar trek on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was never the same. Joyous memory or sad memory? There are days I teeter between both. But every year as we approach the first Saturday in December I hold my father’s and mother’s hand in my heart and take a walk in my mind north on State Street.