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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 06:49 pm

The enchanting story of Christmas in Illinois

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An Illinois Christmas portrait from 1900

Sleigh rides in Springfield. Christmas at Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s house in Nauvoo. Recipes from Collinsville’s “Queen of Cookies.” A Greenville Civil War soldier’s Christmas letter to his wife. The nation’s oldest Santa Claus parade in Peoria. Chicago carol singalongs with Studs Terkel. A Great Depression Christmas in Marion. And ethnic Christmas traditions statewide.

Christmas in Illinois is a “collection of holiday memories, recipes, and images” compiled by James Ballowes, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Bradley University. The book reaches back to some of Illinois’ earliest Christmases, such as an account of Kaskaskia in 1700, to the present.

The book is divided into six sections. “Christmas in Illinois History” relates incidents from before statehood through the late 1800s, although there is one description of West Frankfort’s Black Christmas of 1951. Coal miner Jack McReynolds, who wrote the account of a Christmas coal mining disaster that claimed 119 lives, witnessed the event’s effect on the small community as a teenager. None of the other pieces dealt with such tragedy, but several portray drunken, rowdy and even violent revelry that was an expected, though often unwelcome, part of those early Christmas celebrations. “Too Much Christmas Spirit,” by Illinois Times contributor Tara McClellan McAndrew, describes a Springfield “Christmas of 1860 [that] Featured Sleigh Accidents, Brawl, Shooting”; a front page article in the New York Times’ Dec. 26 edition was titled “A Christmas Eve Fight” that occurred in Shawneetown.

Christmas in Illinois: A Collection of Holiday Memories, Recipes and Images, edited by James Ballowe. University of Illinois Press, 240 pages. $29.95.
“Living Traditions” revolves around longstanding customs and celebrations, from letters to Santa, Milliken University’s 50-plus-year-old Vespers Concerts, and ethnic traditions, ranging from Swedish, Polish, French and German community events to Sandra Cisneros’ account of her Mexican family feasts in Chicago.

“Songs and Symbols” includes an essay written by Springfield’s late, beloved author, Robert Hastings: “A String of Lights for Christmas” about his depression-era childhood in Marion. There’s a description of New Trier’s Christmas concerts in Winnetka, featuring a 700-voice choir and 200-member orchestra and a poem by John Knoepfle for the lighting of Auburn’s town square Christmas tree. The series of “dialogue” columns by the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich and Eric Zorn that led to the decade-plus tradition of a carol singalong at the Old Town School of Folk Music are especially fun.

“Christmas Outdoors” is the shortest section. There are descriptions of Christmas bird counts (people recording the number of species observed within a given parameter) in northern and southern parts of the state, a Carl Sandburg poem, and naturalist Mary Theilgaard Watts descriptions and drawings of the ways that different trees “wear” the snow.

“Eating Merrily” includes recipes. They’re mostly for cookies, though there are a few others, including an odd stuffing for a turkey’s neck cavity consisting of stiffly beaten egg whites, egg yolks, butter, sugar, citron, currants, bread crumbs and brandy! An oyster dressing (recipe not included) was used for the larger cavity. There are also essays, including “Christmas Dinner Without End, Amen” by Dennis Yannias about being obligated to stuff himself at both his Greek grandmothers’ Christmas tables. Though the particulars were different, the story’s essence could have been written by my mother about her grandmothers: “We ate until we couldn’t move,” he writes. “Returning the shared language of love our grandmothers understood.”

The last section, “Memories,” contains stories of families living in cities, small towns and countryside, in good times and bad. An exception to those accounts is the late, great Mike Royko’s wryly amusing “Mary and Joe, Chicago-Style.” It envisions Mary and Joseph arriving by bus, coping with the snarls and snafus of Chicago’s bureaucracy as they try to find a place for Mary to give birth, after which they flee on a bus to the area of southern Illinois known as “Little Egypt.”

In compilations such as Christmas in Illinois, there are highs and lows of writing. Some authors are well-known and accomplished; others have little experience. There are factual reports as well as personal accounts. Inevitably, some pieces are more compelling than others. But as I read further into the book, I became increasingly enchanted, not just with individual stories, but with the book as a whole. It’s perspective of Illinois’ holiday season is both broad and deep: Broad because of the wide range of customs and traditions. And deep because it reveals that even though past Christmases were far simpler – fresh oranges are mentioned repeatedly as a special treat for rich and poor alike – they were as much or more rewarding than those today.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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