Street Smart Chicago

Presents: The Holiday Issue

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Cover by Max Clarke

Cover by Max Clarke

In these secular, overwhelmingly commercial times, the holidays can easily become a season of dread, of disdain, of why-do-we-do-this-again-and-again? Like Charlie Brown, every year I find myself searching once again for the true meaning of Christmas. I found it, this year, when reading Naomi Huffman’s heartfelt essay about her grandparents, in this line, which unexpectedly choked me up: “All the fanfare, all the fuss, it was all for us, their grandchildren.” You have to read it in context, of course, but I realized: That’s what the holidays are all about—family, memories and love, unconditional love, the kind of love those lucky enough to feel it as children binds us forever to those who gave it to us and creates a lifelong longing to find it again and, ultimately failing that, to pass it on. Read through these essays, all written by sophisticated, urban, maybe even “ironic” writers, and see if you can’t find that thread yourself. It’s there. (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »

Seasons Misgivings: Christmas Has No Conscientious Objectors

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National-Lampoons-Christmas-VacationBy Greg Langen

Taylor Swift was raised on an eleven-acre Christmas tree farm a few miles outside of Cumru Township, Pennsylvania, a small rural community located in the southeastern corner of that state. I don’t know what to do with this information right now, or why it comes so easily to my mind, but considering its heavy rotation inside my head I feel that this is somehow crucial information to consider when thinking about the holidays. I don’t know either.

We learn about the holidays from our families I suppose; that and sheer repetition. I learned how to celebrate the holidays from my dad. Unlike my mom who was sent into a feverish spin until the festivities ultimately unraveled her, my father stood in front of the holiday season and let it hit him like a truck. He didn’t so much participate in the holidays; the holidays seemed to happen to him. This is a notable difference, I think, even if the end is the same.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” first arrived in theaters on December 1, 1989. I mention this only to get the numbers right. To date, my father has watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” a total of at least twenty-three times, soon to be twenty-four. I am not that far behind. We had the VHS copy of this movie. Now we have the DVD. Despite what cultural commentaries this Christmas movie supposedly makes on my family (as opposed to, say something like the hallowed greatness of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), I forget whether or not I actually like the movie. I know that when I was younger, the image of Clark Griswold rocketing down a snow hill on a saucer greased with “non-chloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant 500 times more slippery than any other competitor’s cooking oil on the market” could send me into hysterics, but when I watch this scene today I don’t know why I am laughing. But I am laughing. My muscles retain the memory. Sitting in front of this movie I am the picture of a Happy Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »

Daunting Bird Day: Heartsick for the Holidays

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The Answer?

The Answer?/Photo: Keith Allison

By John Wilmes

It’s snowing in Chicago, our first one this year. The air is gray, the trees are wet and white and their limbs are flowing. I’m at home in the afternoon, flopping on a futon—heartsick, “writer,” bored, lazy, “existentialist”—watching entire NBA games from 2001, on YouTube. Perhaps there are better uses of time.

I’d been using most of my time the past few weeks to do excessive counts of vain push-ups, of vain pull-ups, and to miscalculate strategies to reign supreme in the abyss of online dating.

I’d be one of the Midwest’s premier cyber egotists, splaying the various limbs of my social-sexual “game” to maximum shine. I’d carry my bold new chest to O’Hare on the week of Thanksgiving, and breed curiosity in the flying hearts of America’s urbane not-so-youth. Their taut bodies would shiver, their pearls of eyes would blink ceaselessly as they buckled in for the clouds.

My father’s brother, a genuine turd king, would lean in respect toward me over the turkey. I’d hold a leg of the bird in each hand, and clobber him with either if he spoke out of turn. Read the rest of this entry »

Deck the Hell: Why Ornament?

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ornamentBy Dana Norris

My family owns way too many goddamn Christmas ornaments and every year my mother buys more. She goes to Hallmark, walks up and down every aisle, peers at the delicate dangling sculptures, and picks one ornament for each of her three children that is supposed to represent our accomplishments for that year. Let’s see—Ben’s breaking his lease, so Santa Claus playing a saxophone?  A snowman swimming in a mug of hot chocolate and, improbably, not melting? The SS Enterprise with a wreath on it?

When I was twelve years old, my mother gave me an ornament of two mice in red pajamas and striped hats, sitting by a fire, stringing comically large popcorn onto a comically large needle and thread. She got me this ornament because I had a best friend. But as we children aged the tradition continued. What does a twenty-two-year-old accomplish in a year that can be expressed in ornament form? Hallmark doesn’t make a “You left your purse at the bar and went to a house party but that one hot guy from the bar was at the house party too and he brought you your purse and then you made out with him” ornament. Read the rest of this entry »

Bad Santa: An Unforgettable Employment Claus

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Santa

Our author in his disguise

By Eric Lutz

A couple years ago, I took a job working with kids to supplement my lavish freelance income. When I applied, I was under the impression my duties would be to provide after-school homework help to elementary age kids. But what it actually consisted of was playing basketball with a bunch of eight-year-olds and teaching them the importance of not hitting each other in the face with their hats. It was awesome.

On my first day at the school, my new boss pulled me aside: they needed someone to play Santa at their upcoming “Breakfast with Santa” event, and she was wondering if I’d be up for the job. Breakfast with Santa, I would later learn, consisted of kids taking turns sitting on my lap, telling me what they want for Christmas and eating cereal while their parents snapped pictures.

Now, Santa and I share very few characteristics, physically or personality-wise. We’re white guys who love cookies and are generally pretty pleasant, but I think that’s about where the similarities end.

Santa Claus: old, fat and jolly. Eric Lutz: young, thin and jolly for—at best—a sum forty-five minutes in the last year. Read the rest of this entry »

The Black Friday Brawl: The Importance of Owning Poo-Chi

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Poo-ChiBy Amber Peckham

In the year 2000, when I was thirteen, my mother seemed to give up on trying to surprise me with Christmas gifts. I was now allowed to choose all my presents, even stand in line with Mom while the bar codes buzzed over the checkout laser, watching as she forked over the family’s hard-earned cash for a new Playstation game or a stack of books six deep that I couldn’t wait to dig into.

Mom forced me to go to Walmart with her on Black Friday that year. She claimed it would be good bonding time for us, but really, she needed a second soldier on the field of retail battle, and my dad was too tired to tag along. For us to get all the best deals, we would have to split up. Mom would head toward the clothing side of the store to grapple for flannel pajamas, socks, and jeans, while I would be deployed to the toy section. I was a slight girl, with mousy brown hair to my waist, unassuming and small. It would be easy for me to fight the crowds, and rabid adults would be less likely to grapple with a child. The two of us would reconnoiter in electronics, where the gem I had chosen to cap off my Christmas crown waited in the video game case as my reward—Final Fantasy IX.

This particular year, there was one toy which outshone all the others, one present my little sister Antonia had talked about day and night since the commercials began airing on Nickelodeon months before. This holy grail of holiday satisfaction was known as Poo-Chi.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Santa Fe Locomotive: For the Love of a Grandfather

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800px-Santa_Fe_98By Naomi Huffman

My grandfather’s hands were large, his knuckles knobbed like branches, his palms calloused from years spent on my family’s farm in Blackford County, Indiana, and from working the line at the Delco Battery plant in Muncie. But he handled the pieces of his Lionel model train with ease, lifting the cars from their plastic casing one by one, connecting the couplers end to end with the sort of precision mastered only with practice and care.

There was a Santa Fe locomotive, silver and shiny, with lights that flashed as it whistled, with red and orange stripes painted down either side. There were cargo cars: yellow, blue, brown. Some had plastic windows, or tiny handles on doors the size of my child thumb. The wheels were small as dimes. My favorite car was the caboose, painted red of course, with a tiny black gate at the rear.

The train came out of its box just once a year, at Christmas, when gifts were piled around the tree set up in my grandparents’ living room. As my grandfather built tunnels with the boxes for the train to run through and tinkered with the speed settings on the transformer, my grandmother worried the tinsel on the tree, and turned the ornaments so they faced just so, and wondered aloud if the star atop it all was crooked. All the fanfare, all the fuss, it was all for us, their grandchildren. Read the rest of this entry »

Cinematic Giving: How to Have Christmas Just Like in the Movies

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MiracleBy Helen Kaplow

The unforgettable hat, the shining toy train, the pair of ice skates—thanks to cinematic magic, these items have come to represent Christmas joy itself. But don’t just watch them on TV, bring them home for the holidays.

Miracle on 34th Street

A perennial holiday favorite since this film’s debut in 1947, no one has ever played Santa Claus more convincingly than Edmund Gwenn. And it’s a movie filled with the exciting clamor of Christmas shopping and our yearning for just the right gifts.

Kris Kringle: What do you want for Christmas, Peter?
Peter: A fire engine, just like the big ones only smaller, that has a real hose that squirts real water. I won’t do it in the house, only in the backyard. I promise.
Harried Mother: Psst! Psst! Macy’s ain’t got any. Nobody’s got any.
Kris Kringle: Well, Peter, I can tell you’re a good boy. You’ll get your fire engine.

If in Chicago, Kringle would head to Chicago Fire and Cop Shop. A family-owned store on the Southwest Side run by a retired fire fighter and police officer, they sell a big line of fire-and-police-related gifts, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, Christmas ornaments and toy police cars and fire trucks. 4038 West 111th, Oak Lawn, (708)425-2884, chicagofireandcopshop.comRead the rest of this entry »

When the Aspidistra Was Flying: Home, Among the Bookshelves, For the Holiday

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By Vincent Francone

Thanksgiving, 1996. The Aspidistra Bookshop was open 364 days a year. If it wasn’t Christmas, the store wasn’t going to close. My family refused to believe this. Who would stay open on Thanksgiving?

I explained to my mother that I would not be coming home that year, that even though the trip was short—just an hour or so from Lakeview to the southwest suburbs—I had to open and close the store.

“Who’s going to buy books on Thanksgiving?”

Not a bad question. I didn’t expect many people to wander in, though few surely would, mostly the oddballs who fit right in among the dusty books and empty beer bottles that littered the shop. They haunted Clark Street drinking endless cups of coffee at McDonald’s and trading conspiracy theories before coming to our store to make my day a bit more surreal. They asked me questions like: “Do you know who really discovered  Halley’s Comet?” But they never bought anything. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts That Count: Five Cards that Celebrate Christmas in Chicago from Chicago

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CTA Holiday Card

This season, bypass the Hallmark card aisle and spread some holiday cheer by representing Chicago and its artists with these five city-centric Christmas cards. Read the rest of this entry »