Christmas in Chicago

It truly was another time in a place that no longer exists. Oh, the buildings and streets are still there and the snow still falls deep and wet on them but yet – it is all different than it was when I was a young band director in a small school in downstate Illinois with a lovely young Italian wife and two, maybe three pre-school age children. In those golden days the VanderCook College of Music hosted an event in Chicago called "The Midwest National Band Clinic." It was a gala affair held right before Christmas each year. Band Directors by the hundreds came, drawn by the conviviality and the opportunity to listen to choice high school bands from all of the 48 states. Dozens of vendors in booths hawked everything from mouthpieces to music and many of them hosted a "Hospitality Room" where we directors could gather to enjoy conversation and libations. Most of us had just given a Christmas Concert "back home" so we arrived totally immersed in the effects that the beautiful music of Christmas brings to us.

The most dramatic moment of that gathering came on Saturday noon. All the bands had played. The chairs were folded and the music stands trucked off. The vendors had packed up their wares and lagniappe. A festive solemnity filled the air. At that point those fortunate enough to have tickets for the two hundred or so available seats gathered in a ballroom for a farewell Christmas dinner. That would be unremarkable had it not been for the fact that when all the food was gone and the words of all the speakers had faded into the past all of us stood and sang "Silent Night." It was totally unrehearsed but in a room filled with musicians the rendition of that beautiful carol was breathtaking. Many of us filed out of that room with tears wetting our cheeks.

My in-laws all lived in Chicago in those long-ago mid-twentieth century days. As Italian families once did they all gathered in one person’s home for a dinner of home made ravioli with homemade meatballs and Italian sausage submerged in gravy that "Nana" had spent all day making. (No real Italian calls it "sauce."), crunchy fresh garlic bread, calzone, salad, and drinks. This was all washed down with a dark red wine that, although it had a proper name, we just called "Dago Red." Although there was little love lost between my in-laws and I, the spirit of Christmas was upon us so a congenial, unspoken truce was in effect.

Those dinners have become legendary. Sadly they now exist only in our memory. Like any meaningful commemoration there were certain little rituals that consciously or unconsciously took place during this dinner. Invariably someone, usually "Uncle Frank Campobasso," midway through the dinner would say, "The ravioli came better last year" which would upset "Nana" the matriarch of the clan. That comment would be followed by a round-robin discussion of all the food. Then came the dessert. "Pizza Dolce," "Log Cookies" with chocolate on each end, many other cookies, all kinds of nuts, and a "Chocolate Chiffon Cake" competed for a place in our overfilled stomachs. After dinner was over my father-in-law would usually commandeer the sofa for a nap while Uncle Frank –unless the weather was outrageously inclement – would go outdoors and enjoy a fat tasty cigar. The ladies, as was common in those days – cleared the table, put away the few leftovers and washed the dishes.

The Christmas Day dinner came on the heels of a just-before-midnight seafood extravaganza on Christmas Eve. The main course for that meal was Linguine covered with a red gravy, made with lobster tail rather than meat, accompanied by the usual garlic bread and almost every ocean creature that any Italian had ever eaten. The table was a briny cornucopia filled with oysters on the half-shell and deep fried, smelt, bacala` (salted codfish), huge luscious shrimp both boiled and deep fried, squid (euphemistically called calamari) and of course free-flowing "Dago Red." That dinner however had to be completed in time for us to attend Midnight Mass in the nearby parish church.

All of this while "old hat" to my lovely wife was astounding to me. I had been raised in a very small quintessentially WASP town in Southeastern Kansas in which the ethnic roots of its citizens had long since been forgotten or ignored. The staple food for Christmas for us had been an All-American dinner of either turkey, prepared as it had been for Thanksgiving or a succulent ham with golden rings of pineapple adorning it. Christmas Eve dinner was held at the normal time followed by the present-opening festivities. "Midnight Mass," well, there were enough Catholics in town to support a tiny chapel-like church and although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, they DID have a Midnight Mass.

There is one other fragment of those haunting Christmases in Chicago lodged in my memory. Why it is stuck there is a mystery. Maybe it was a moment that for me somehow captured all that Christmas is meant to be. We were driving west on Chicago Avenue, my lovely wife and I, just past Western Avenue. All the lampposts were festooned while the storefronts each in their own way proclaimed that Christmas was near. Traffic was light as we drove. It was late evening. Lush damp snowflakes played hide and seek with the windshield wipers while the muted sound of our tires crunching the snow on the streets played a counterpoint. It was an age when every major radio station broadcast traditional Christmas carols with an occasional nod to Snowmen and Red-Nosed Reindeer. Seat belts hadn’t yet been invented so my wife, my love, was sitting close to me as we drove placidly towards our destination. I don’t recall the song whose sounds began filling our car. Whatever it was it sealed the moment forever in my memory. Everything about Christmas that need be said was being said in perfect harmony – love, beauty, peace, and joy. Had I been able to hug the world at that moment my arms would have been full. As it was, I think I squeezed my wife’s delicate hand and said something that I am sure barely began to express what I was feeling.

Truly a "Ghost of Christmas Past" walks the halls of my memory as I now, more than a half-century later, prepare to celebrate Christmas with middle-aged children and adult grandchildren. My prayerful hope is that somehow, in some way they will encounter Christmas as it is meant to be as I did that magical evening in Chicago and that encounter –without their being aware of it at the time – will become for them a lovely specter that meets them every year at this time.

Keith and Gwen Barney
This Wasn't Your Grandma's Thanksgiving Turkey


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