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Christmas seems to have been always with us. It is that time of year when we expect good cheer and goodwill, a moment's respite from the year's vicissitudes, solace during difficult times," writes James Ballowe in his introduction to Christmas in Illinois. This book is about the holiday as remembered by Illinoisans. Some are widely familiar--John W. Allen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Carl Sandburg, Joseph Smith--but most are known only in their close-knit communities that together ...
Christmas seems to have been always with us. It is that time of year when we expect good cheer and goodwill, a moment's respite from the year's vicissitudes, solace during difficult times," writes James Ballowe in his introduction to Christmas in Illinois. This book is about the holiday as remembered by Illinoisans. Some are widely familiar--John W. Allen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Carl Sandburg, Joseph Smith--but most are known only in their close-knit communities that together represent the very best of the Prairie State.
We learn here about the customs of Christmas from Chicago to Cairo, Belleville to Danville, before statehood to the present day, through hard times and good. Tales, poems, news reports, memoirs, recipes, and images are arranged in sections on Christmas in Illinois history, living traditions, songs and symbols, Christmas outdoors, eating merrily, and memories. We see how bright an occasion Christmas has been, and sometimes amusing, raucous, or even dark.
The collection's highlights include Chicago's Christmas tree ship, Peoria's Santa Parade, Rockford's Julotta service, a Victorian holiday in Bloomington, and Audubon's 1810 Christmas on the Cache River. Nature writers detail holiday bird-watching expeditions along the North Shore and in deepest southern Illinois. A letter from a member of the 130th Illinois Infantry captures Christmas Day 1863, and Jack McReynolds recalls West Frankfort's 1951 Orient Number Two mine disaster that thereafter haunted the holiday for him and many others.
The holiday table is not neglected, with traditional recipes for wild game, pickled herring, and all manner of Christmas cookies. A wide array of illustrations includes images of Chicago's grand State Street parade, the Santa Lucia celebration at Bishop Hill, Belleville's Santa Claus House, Millikin University's Vespers tradition, the University of Illinois madrigal singers, Studs Terkel singing songs of good cheer, and the holiday art of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Heat up some cider, put a log on the fire, and curl up with Christmas in Illinois to share the holiday with friends both old and new.
In 1870, Ulysses S. Grant, the president of the United States with deep roots in Galena, Illinois, put his signature on a resolution that made December 25 a federal holiday. This meant that federal services would be halted on that day, and federal employees would have the day off. As with other federal holidays, the closing of the federal government reverberated throughout state and private sectors of the country. By the twentieth century, December 25 was considered by most Americans a holiday for all citizens.
For our Puritan colonial forefathers, declaring Christmas a national holiday would have been unthinkable. The Puritans, following the lead of their Commonwealth brethren in England, attempted to cleanse their communities of all manner of activity that they believed to be tainted by pagan, Anglican, or, especially, Roman mores. Thus, Christmas was banned during the early decades of the colonies and eschewed by many Protestant sects even until after the American Revolution.
Why? As the historians Stephen Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas and Bruce David Forbes in Christmas: A Candid History have pointed out, it was not just a rebellion against English culture and the Church of England that caused most early colonists to suppress Christmas observances. First, they knew that the date set for Christmas by the Catholic church—December 25—was an attempt to upstage celebrations of the winter solstice. Unlike Independence Day, which commemorates a date-certain event, Christmas Day was a holiday that few, especially Protestant Christians, could agree upon. More important perhaps was that the Christmas holiday celebrations that began in the fourth century A.D. and incorporated many pagan rituals and trappings had by the fifteenth century degenerated into misrule, if not into a pattern of social upheaval in which both the lower and upper classes often contrived to play a part. In many European communities on Christmas there was social inversion, a changing of places between the rich and the poor. Whenever those of wealth and power refused to play their part, the poor could make life difficult for them. Instead of agreed-upon pleasantries, the thwarted poor would perform annoying and sometimes destructive tricks on their would-be hosts. Christmas took on aspects of Halloween, including mummery and uncontrolled revelry. It was this sort of Christmas the Puritans most wanted to eliminate, along with the trappings that accompanied iconic Christmases associated with the Church of Rome.
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The Illinois of Lincoln and Grant was well over a century removed from the repressive spirit of the Puritans. What had come between was eighteenth-century Deism and dependence upon reason and human sufficiency of the Founding Fathers; the Revolution that created a nation motivated by exploration and expansion; industrialization that accelerated immigration from Catholic Europe; the statehood of Illinois in 1818; and not least, the Victorian era, which spanned most of the nineteenth century and whose cultural influence pervaded America well into the twentieth.
Queen Victoria, with almost as much German blood as her Prince Consort, Albert of Saxony, was mother to nine children and grandmother to forty-two. While she was an empire builder and presided over the industrial and political evolution of her own country, she became a symbol in England and the United States for the virtues of domesticity and middle-class morality. To a great extent, she influenced the way we celebrate Christmas today in Illinois and the United States. During her lifetime, particularly after the Civil War, Christmas became the principal time of the year that domestic harmony prevailed and children were cynosures of doting adults.
Coincident with Victoria's iconic influence, the Christmas stories of Washington Irving, Charles Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823, later becoming the more familiar "Twas the Night before Christmas"), Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), and the cartoons of a jolly Old Santa Claus that Thomas Nast began to draw during the Civil War provided secular trappings and helped establish Christmas as a season of goodwill, presents, and child-centered familial bliss, thus making it palatable for even the most fundamentalist Protestants.
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But even before all this transpired, the land that is now Illinois had not been without celebrations and rituals during the days surrounding the winter solstice. Native American communities of a thousand years ago left evidence of their observation of the solstice. And the French explorers Phre Marquette and Louis Joliet must have observed Christmas when they camped in the winter of 1674 on what is now known as the South Branch of the Chicago River, even though it is probable that Marquette was too ill to officiate at a mass, as he would do the following spring at Easter for Illinois Indians in Utica. It is also possible that the first Christmas tree in Illinois was brought to Fort Dearborn at Chicago in 1803. And French settlements along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River at Fort du Chartres most certainly celebrated Christmas and the New Year, la gui annee, a tradition that continues to this day.
Still, celebrations rooted in historical European customs were not immediately embraced by the majority of those early Illinois settlers who were primarily of English and Scottish stock. Christmas would not become an integral part of Illinois life until later. For example, even the Episcopal bishop Philander Chase, the founder of Kenyon College in Ohio and Jubilee College in Illinois, makes little mention of Christmas in letters written to his wife during fund-raising trips in southern Illinois in the 1840s and 1850s. Uncertainty remained among Protestants as to whether they should acknowledge December 25 as a day of religious celebration, a day that on the frontier still meant to many a license to excess. Consequently, those who search Illinois history for Christmas celebrations prior to the Civil War have a difficult time unearthing evidence of them outside of Catholic enclaves.
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Today, however, Christmas seems to have been always with us. It is that time of year when we expect good cheer and goodwill, a moment's respite from the year's vicissitudes, solace during difficult times. This seems especially true during times of economic hardship. Many Illinoisans remember their first Christmases during the Great Depression. Some, such as I, were born into a geography called Little Egypt, that delta-shaped portion of Illinois lying largely between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers where shipping, coal, and timber shaped the faces of immigrant and migrant populations. For others, it was the black-earth center of the state, dominated by agriculture and characterized by stability and the boast of maintaining American values. And in the north, there seemed by the late 1890s to be all of what the other two had plus thriving cities with industry, transportation, and a reputation for putting people to work, thus attracting a population more diverse than the rest of the state put together. To many in what is called Downstate (for a lot of Chicagoans almost any place south of Roosevelt Road), Chicago was apart from rather than of Illinois. But if they did not live near St. Louis, which satisfied their occasional need for a city, Chicago was for Downstaters the place to journey to for shopping, window displays, and wonderment, particularly at Christmastime.
I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in the city of Herrin, a community that declined during the Depression, came alive with coal and munitions production during World War II, and, like communities throughout the state, remains subject to the whims of a fickle economy. On one side of town was the Italian immigrant community, Catholic virtually to a person. On the other side was a Protestant majority of English and Scottish descent, generally Methodists, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, or members of hardcore fundamentalist sects. I began my search for an Illinois Christmas trying to remember whether Christmas was ever brought into the sanctuary of the Southern Baptist church that I attended with my grandmother and mother. If so, it was dramatically unlike what seemed to me to be the exotic Christmas Mass attended by my Catholic friends. There was no Latin mass or abundantly visual displays of the Virgin and Child that made the Christmas story lively and filled with mystery. During the latter part of the Depression and World War II, our Southern Baptist minister adhered, as he was required to do by the tenets of his faith and his congregation, to the literal meaning of the Bible. The only embellishments on the story of the birth of Christ—related briefly and somewhat disjointedly in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35 and 2:1-20—were in the rising and falling tone of the reverend's voice.
As I remember, it was only in the sanctity of our four-room coal-miner's house that Christmas became meaningful. Once the tree was up, an angel placed at the highest point, and the lights turned on, I would hurry outside, stand on the brick cobbled street, and look in awe at how the tree made our house appear a welcoming and wondrous abode. In my mind's eye it has now taken on the aura of a most resplendent crhche. On Christmas Day the magic moment continued when we opened our gifts, few in number but cherished for as long as they held together.
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As was predicted from the pulpit, when I left for Decatur to attend Millikin University in 1951, I and my classmates who headed northward needed to be aware of the dangers of mingling with northern sinners. "Sinners" meant, of course, human beings who did not share the preacher's ideas. First, I became a Presbyterian. Then in Champaign I began to study the works of the philosopher George Santayana, who espoused a life of reason while valuing the art and ritual of the Catholic church. Later in Peoria I became a Congregationalist and, still later in Oak Park, the husband of a Unitarian-Universalist. A grandson is a happy celebrant of both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Even as Christmas celebrations changed in the religious venues I have experienced over time, and my understanding of religion has altered greatly from what I was taught early on, I still get caught up in the excitement of the season. The principal difference between early Christmases and those of today is not so much religious attitude as the unbridled obsession with gifts. As I write this in 2009 in my study in Ottawa, where my wife and I have spent over a decade of Christmases, I observe with not a little irony that during this past year of economic uncertainty gift giving has become almost as meaningful as it was during the Depression. Gifts are far fewer and more thoughtful and useful. As the guy who repairs the dents in my car told me last December, of all the presents he has received throughout his life, a set of wrenches from his father was by far the best.
Excerpted from Christmas in Illinois Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 29, 2011
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