I learned the words to Santa Claus is Coming to Town when I was about five years old. As one of over 75 million baby boomers born between 1946-1964, I recall Christmas images began to appear after Labor Day, but the day after Halloween, businesses and homes exploded in displays of red and green. I rely on holiday classics I’ve come to know and love to put me in the right frame of mind in the weeks leading up to Christmas, one of my favorite days of the year.
Classic movie characters (in the order I like to revisit them) are Clark Griswold, Ralphie, George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence, Ebeneezer Scrooge in the really old A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen, and Kevin from Home Alone.
I proudly admit to loving almost all of the multitude of Hallmark Christmas movies my wife and I watch, probably 345 days per year. Some of you may know I finally finished the first draft of a manuscript I would love to see made into a Hallmark movie. Fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle in the New Year!
Getting back to my vivid childhood Christmas memories of living on the blue-collar South side of Chicago, I longed for things that weren’t in my folks’ budget. I cherish a yellowed photograph of me in the early 60’s (about six or seven years old) sitting on Santa’s lap at Prospect Federal Savings on West 47th Street in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
You probably know Ralphie was desperate for an Official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. My obsession when I was eight or nine was the Mattel Hot Wheels loop- the-loop two-lane orange plastic track and a couple of miniature hot rods to race down the track clamped to the living room coffee table.
Like Ralphie, some of my gifts were hidden near the live Christmas tree. It probably cost $10 or $15 and was decorated with multi-color big-bulb and bubble lights, inexpensive plastic ornaments, and real lead tinsel. Unlike the current flimsy, shiny plastic, the weight caused the shimmering strands to hang like icicles, filling in the bare spots between tree branches. Tossing gobs of tinsel was not allowed. It was a painstaking, but worthwhile process.
I still love cars, especially late-60’s and early-70’s muscle cars. Beta readers may remember a midnight blue and white-striped 1970 Chevelle SS454 LS-6 from The Walk-On. I vow to own one with matching serial numbers one day. If you aren’t a car aficionado, that translates to rare and expensive.
When I was eleven, my creativity began to emerge and I decided I needed the technically advanced Polaroid SX-70 Original Chrome Instant Camera. I probably took mostly pictures of cars. The film was expensive, especially considering you got about ten photos that really smelled from chemicals that developed the instant prints…which then had to be coated with an even smellier stick to preserve them. Lol…no digital features, no cellphone camera edits and filters. You could take selfies — although you couldn’t preview/adjust your angles.
I wish I still had those two presents to list on eBay. The proceeds might have made a dent in this year’s inflated prices for gifts.
For decades as an adult, I dragged decorations out of the garage or basement and checked innumerable light strings for dead bulbs and fuses before carefully winding them around trees, bushes, pillars and windows. Pretty much anything stationary on the property.
One of the things I do not miss about being a homeowner in Chicago, is when half the light string goes out due to one impossible-to-locate bulb. Invariably, it was under 20 degrees and the wind whipped my hands and face. I felt every sub-zero degree of the windchill factor.
Despite the collateral damage of numb fingers, I do miss the satisfaction of finally replacing the wayward bulb or fuse and returning the front yard to its blaze of glory. Hallelujah! Clark Griswold would be proud. I truly look forward to the day I hear Rusty Griswold’s infamous words from one of my kids. “Dad, you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination.” No, I’m not holding my breath.
Over the last say twenty years, we’ve been inundated with strategically positioned retail store displays leaping from summer merchandise closeouts and back-to-school sales, to holiday mode before cool temperatures even have the chance of transforming the trees to blazing fall colors. More than ever, social media assaults remind us we are behind holiday schedule weeks before Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. I’m not immune and think about Christmas earlier too, but I at least try to wait until after Halloween.
Holiday lights these days are almost all LED and can be synced to twinkle to music. Internet Christmas shopping has seriously impacted malls and small business owners, particularly the past two years. Christmas cards with family photo collages (guilty as charged), and e-cards have replaced actual signatures, an enclosed photo and brief handwritten note.
For almost forty years, with only a few skips, Patty and I have seen theater productions of A Christmas Carol. Starting at the Goodman in Chicago to Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. then back to the Goodman. Our kids are well into double-digit attendance themselves. Back in July, on the first day of Priority Sales, likely in the first ten minutes, Patty, hopeful we could continue our beloved tradition, bought tickets.
So the weekend before Christmas, we left the City of Angels — where our 5-foot Christmas tree cost 3X what we paid for an eight-footer in Western Springs in 2017 — to take our favorite seats, Center Stage Row E, at the Goodman Theater. Cast members and director interpretations continue to change, but ultimately, Charles Dickens’ story remains timeless.
While in town, we managed to pull off a version of our annual Christmas open house, even though we are technically homeless in Chicago. The Podkowski Pop-Up Christmas Open House took place at our kids’ high school Alumni Hall. It was brief, but fun. Always good to catch up with old friends.
It was great to see old landmarks, too. Here’s a shoutout to the downtown Magnificent Mile and the city Christmas tree near The Bean. Wouldn’t even have minded a bit of snow, but it was actually warmer in Chicago than it was when we left Los Angeles!
The one trend I can’t quite get onboard with is Christmas lawn inflatables which get bigger and more animated with each passing year. I’m too old school, I guess. Still like the old plastic Santas, reindeer and angels. However, I got quite a kick out of a newsclip recently that showed a couple of small brown bears attacking an inflatable Rudolph on the front lawn of a house in a foothill community above Los Angeles. They pounced on it, but couldn’t break through the heavy plastic with their claws. I laughed and rooted for the bears who ultimately got frustrated and ambled away.
In closing, I hope you were able to share quality time with family, friends, and loved ones. The kids were both MIA this year thanks to Covid. But we were blessed to celebrate a traditional Polish Christmas Eve with a family we met on our first Los Angeles tour of duty. Greg is LA-based again, Sarah was in from Germany and their daughters from London. A good time was had by all! Christmas morning we delivered leftovers to the kids and we will celebrate together in the New Year.
“The times they are a-changin,” sang Bob Dylan. Enjoy your own Christmas Classics but embrace some new ones, too. I encourage Millennials and Gen Z to give the instant messaging, selfies, social media and video games a rest. Actually turn the paper pages of Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Gift of the Magi, How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Polar Express. Sit down with a loved one in front of the twinkling tree or roaring fire…reminisce about the past, plan for the future. Talk, laugh, maybe cry…but live and love in the moment. Add hot cocoa ala Hallmark and maybe it will magically snow!
Finally, remember the reason for the season. I believe the baby in the manger we celebrate is the Light of the World. Light will overcome darkness.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!