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A Vintage Chicago Christmas…..

Do you have  a favorite holiday song? Mine are Breath of Heaven, Grown up Christmas list and Little Drummer boy.
I could listen to those over and over and never get tired of them.
It struck me this week as I was trying to hurriedly get all of my decorating done, and hoping I bought enough for everyone, that  I celebrate and view the holiday’s so much differently than I did even 10 years ago. Even my Christmas song choices have changed.
  My early holiday memories revolve the whole big, Polish family getting together in my Great Aunt’s basement. She lived with her sister in a 100-year-old two-flat; her on the top floor, her sister on the bottom, and my grandmother across the street. It was the kind of Chicago city street with old brick and clapboard houses, that you used chairs to save your parking space on, and Lord help you if you moved someone’s chair and just parked there…
After Mass in the ‘burbs, we would head out to the “city”. We would all get together, the extended cousins, aunts and uncles in the brick and wood-raftered basement. After climbing down some treacherously steep stairs we would sit at long bingo tables and some really hard, metal folding chairs borrowed from the church and eat and talk, all while basking in the  light of the white metal Christmas tree, adorned with plastic fruit.  The color wheel that would spin around and around and change the tree from red to blue and green. The fruit ended up just looking weird.
We would eat pierogi, sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes, while the women washed the dishes in turn at the two huge concrete sinks in the corner. The cousins would all run around the crowded tables and after dinner, we thought it was so cool that we got to put our pajama’s on and play while we were waiting for Santa. When Santa came, we would each get one gift to open and then try to figure out who he was “this year”.
After Santa, the adults would drink their coffee, and have desert and play cards, mostly Pinochle (I still don’t get the whole knocking on the table thing.). But, they sounded like they were having so much fun eating cookies, laughing and playing with the occasional knock and crowd roar.
Then, at some point, all of the food would come back out again and we’d have  a second dinner, the kids would wind down and everyone would say their goodbyes. In the cold, we’d pile back into our station wagon and head back out to the suburbs. It was the 1970’s and my brother’s and I would lie in the back under blankets and count the street lights as they passed over head. At that time on I-55 there were these really cool  blue street lights and we would just be enthralled. I’d watch them zip by one by one and suddenly, our car would be stopped and I would be home.
Sometime in my teen years, the family became just too big and the auntie’s too old and we broke off into smaller family groups. As I grew older, I realized the way life really worked. Christmas changes. Life changes. It becomes less about “the stuff”  and more about the family by default. Every few years or so someone would be missing and the space they left would be gaping.
For me the first year I really felt it full-on was the year my Dad had passed away. Suddenly it was way less about the presents, I could have cared less.  When my Dad’s mother died  two years ago at the age of 99, it made for a rough season as it kind of hit me that it was the last  connection to my Dad, and suddenly someone who’s been around for Christmas for every year of your entire life was just… gone.
As each person has moved on, the season for me becomes so much more about memories I have and making new one’s that my children will remember; because I know that’s that is what they will have to hold onto when they are my age.
I am finally at a point where I realize that it’s so much more than about the hustle and bustle and decorating. All of those years, I don’t remember any of the presents I received at all. Not a one. When I see childhood pictures, then it’s am “oh, yeah. ” But I do remember the feelings and the people and all of the things that didn’t seem important at the time, but are so important now.
I love decorating and fussing for the holiday’s,  I love singing the music, I love my free pine branches at Home Depot, and I love telling my kids how much I hate blue lights every time we drive past a house that has them. I still cook a traditional  menu for Christmas eve dinner, (but I do have to admit I do cheat and pick up a few things at the Polish Deli.) and we even play board games, and eat cookies with lots of powdered sugar, but it hit me that as a family,we really need to celebrate more like the Little Drummer Boy. He was just someone who gave the most important person of the season the greatest, but simplest gift of all. Just  a bit of himself.
And that’s the stuff that lasts.
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  1. This is a great post and made me think back to all my great Christmas memories. Thank you for sharing your sweet words with us 🙂
    Merry Christmas!

  2. Oh Jen! That was lovely. My throat got lumpy reading about your Christmas memories. Why can’t it stay the same. I thought it would forever. Why blue light?!!! I tell my girls the same thing.
    Thanks for bringing back some good memories.
    Enjoy your day and hugs to you.

  3. As I read this it was just like my grandmother’s home. As I prepare for Christmas I try to give my children the wonderful memories that I remember from being a child.

  4. This could double as my childhood story!
    You just have a way with words.

    I haven’t traveled the road of losing a parent, but when I do “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you” …

    Vince Gill since this song to perfection

  5. Oh my gosh this is such a magical post! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It really took me back to my childhood Christmas memories and the feeling of it all.

    Thanks again!! I wish I had the gift of writting a story as beautifully as you have done here.

  6. I love this post. This will be my second Christmas without extended family. Last year was beyond horrible. This year I’m doing much better. But, you are right. It’s about the memories.
    But, I have yet to hear a version of The Little Drummer Boy that I like. Sorry, makes me crazy. LOL. I adore the song ‘Go Tell it On The Mountain’ though.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family!!
    P.S. My Grandma’s street in the city was cobblestone and they used to save parking spaces with chairs too. My other grandparents lived in a three flat and other relatives lived on the other two floors. Good memories!!

  7. Hi Jen,
    Beautifully written and so true. It is strange how years in our life add wisdom in our thinking. I wish growing wise didn’t necessarily have to mean growing older, though. ha. We as a society need to spend a little less time making things perfect to look at and go inside where the real stuff happnes with each other. Hope you have a blessed Christmas with those you have been given to love. Linda

  8. i have blue lights….

    just kidding. hahaha.

    what a wonderful recollection of your christmas’ past. that is what it’s all about.

    we always went to my grandma and grandpas (mom’s side) on christmas eve. she had 5 brothers and sisters and lots of cousins to play with. i remember the noise and excitement when someone came in the door.

    thanks for making me take the time to remember.

  9. That was a lovely post, but I couldn’t resist comments on the addition of the “blue lights bit”. I feel like such a holiday spoil when I pass them and my initial thought is “Take down those tacky lights, and put up some real twinkle lights!” I haaaate them. But, then I realize that it’s their house, and if they want to express their holiday spirit that way, well then let them. (I’ll just put up twice as many on my house to make up for it…. just kidding!).

  10. thank you for sharing that…how I agree with you! What sweet memories to recreate now for your family. Tell the stories…tell the stories!

  11. Thanks for sharing your great traditions. It’s a good reminder to appreciate our own families and traditions. The holidays are hard with out loved ones. LOVE the picture! That should be made into a Christmas card. (hint hint) I would buy a pack.
    Merry Christmas

  12. Gosh, I just wrote
    a very similar post
    on P&H; how things
    change and how it
    affects how we see
    the holidays…..I
    really miss those
    Polish delis in Chicago!
    And I used to live on
    the top floor of a
    three flat when I was
    a newlywed! Such wonderful
    memories, Jen. Thanks
    for that.
    Big winter hugs,
    xx Suzanne

  13. perfect words. I think every single one of us gets lost in the stress of decorating, cooking, shopping. Truly not the reason for the season!
    your last words choked me up too!

  14. i can remember being at my grandpa’s house during the holidays when i was little. the house was so small but we all fit just fine, and there were A LOT of us….

    we ate the polish food too, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, blood sausage and pierogi. boy i hadn’t thought about that until i read your post…thanks for the memories!!

    p.s. i totally love your new kitchen….

  15. I love anything by Amy Grant, too – Jennifer! Breath of Heaven is soooo beautiful….

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories with us. It’s so touching to hear how other gals spend (or spent) their Christmases. 🙂

    xoxo laurie

  16. hey Jen…I used to feel that way about blue Christmas lights on a tree, my Gramma had one when I was a kid and I never really liked it. But this year my sister in law did a blue tree in honor of her son in law, a fallen police officer…murdered by a 16 yr old thug that he was trying to help. When I saw her tree…I don’t feel that way anymore. It has a whole new meaning. Love you. Merry Christmas.

  17. Thank you so much for this post…you have inspired me to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!) to record my childhood memories, for myself, my children and whoever comes behind…before I forget it all! Thanks again, that was beautiful 🙂

  18. Jenn…I’m a recent follower and so I took the time to click on the past post as you suggested. Thanks for sharing your heart…your words touched my heart. You are so right about the gaping hole left when someone close dies. My dad was all about Christmas…he enjoyed every. little. thing. And though I continue to celebrate our Savior most of all, I find that Christmas is also a celebration of my dad and the joy he brought to the season. And his appreciation of a home beautifully decorated for Christmas.

    Merry Christmas!!

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