Friday, December 24, 2010

Is Chicago Christmas still special?

Who remembers Uncle Mistletoe?
Going downtown to check out the department store window displays for the Christmas holiday season is supposed to be one of those quintessential experiences that defines the character of Chicago. Yet I can’t remember the last time I actually did that.

It may well have been back when I was still legally a child. Considering that I’m now into middle-age, that means it has been a long, long time.

NOW I KNOW some people are going to argue that the unique character of those department store displays was lost when places like Marshal Field’s and Carson, Pirie, Scott ceased to be locally-owned entities. The fact that Field’s is now Macys and Carson’s on State Street is nothing, although it may someday become a Target only further adds to any loss of distinct character.

What we get now are some sort of generic displays that I must admit to paying no attention to.

In fact, this time of year, I go out of my way to avoid State Street and Michigan Avenue whenever I can, along with anything resembling crowded shopping malls. Too many people creating congestion for the mess of commercialized holiday shopping.

(Yes, I’m probably in need of “Linus” coming in about now to remind me of the true meaning of Christmas, but that is a commentary for another day).

MAYBE IT IS just age coming on for me. But where is the sense of holiday spectacle that used to make a trip to our city’s downtown business district worth making? I can’t help but think that the children of today (such as my nephews and nieces) have lost out on something by never getting the chance to see a mass spectacle of people showing up along State Street (even if their parents had no intention of buying anything that day) to guess at what wonderments they would get to see along, “that Great Street.”

This 1909 postcard of the old Siegel-Cooper department storeon State Street (later, Sears Roebuck & Co.) includes the holiday-decorated windows. Image provided by Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia

I’m not normally of the type who thinks that everything was better back some 30 or 40 years ago (even though, in many cases, it was). But I’m feeling particularly nostalgic these days for the Christmases of my youth, and wishing that some of those traits could have been retained.

Part of this may very well be due to the loss of my mother just over a month ago. So much of my Christmas holiday routine in recent years had centered around trying to bring her some joy. Now, I have to figure out new ways to occupy my time at this holiday season (or else risk becoming one of those hermits who spend the day locked away).

That certainly is not my intention. But it does seem to have me reminiscing for those December days back when I was 7 or 8 (and my brother, Chris, was about 2 or 3) and our parents took us to State Street.

I CAN REMEMBER the anticipation of checking out each store, going from window to window to watch whatever respective story line was being told build to its conclusion. Even with that hideous mall-like configuration that kept traffic off State Street, the area seemed to have more character then than it does now.

Simple stuff, but more mentally intoxicating than any of the video games that I see my nephew who is roughly that age play these days. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m becoming a tad grouchy in my old age.

It almost seems like when it comes to a public holiday display in Chicago these days, we have to focus our attention away from State Street and its generically-decorated windows and focus on Daley Plaza.

In the shadow of the Picasso statue, we get the official city holiday tree (which was lit back on Nov. 24) and the official city Hanukkah menorah (whose time has passed since the Jewish holiday came early this year at the beginning of December).

PERHAPS THAT IS part of my dismay with public holiday displays – they come so ridiculously early. I know that in my immediate neighborhood, wreaths with red bows were hung from all the public lamp-posts and some colorful Christmas lights were set up – back at the end of October.

I hadn’t even seen the kids come scavenging through my neighborhood in search of Halloween candy when the first municipal Christmas decorations were erected.

Although I’m sure to some people, the more tragic act of Chicago-style Christmas is the restrictions in the downtown high rises against live Christmas trees in the residential units (officials fear the potential of a fire – one nitwit with a dried-out tree can cause an ignition that leaves many pricey units uninhabitable).

Personally, the idea of an artificial tree doesn’t bother me too much. In certain circumstances, they can be more practical. I could even see in cases of the high-rises, where there might be risk of branches or bristles falling hundreds of feet to the streets below, creating more of a mess.

SO THIS IS what has become of Christmas in Chicago – generic window displays, public decorations erected a couple of holiday seasons too early, and some people griping about too-tough restrictions.

How many children of a century ago were scared off by this 1902 incarnation of Santa Claus on State Street?

But perhaps I’m coming off a bit too grouchy. It is, after all, a holiday to celebrate the spirit of life and joy, which is why I always find it a downer that some people are determined to put a negative spin on this holiday by making a stink over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays?”

Either works in my mind. Or how about, “Feliz Navidad” (except that will leave the nativist crowd p-o’ed these days).


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