Twelve Years of Christmas in Chicago

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Our society’s retail machinery can take the noblest ideas and twist them to promote all manner of excess, especially at Christmas. “It’s better to give than receive. So to give, buy at . . .” Honest—I saw that commercial on Chicago buses a few years ago in late November.

My kind of town, Chicago! We lived twelve miles south of The Loop. At that time the Prudential Building at 40 stories was downtown’s tallest—and only—skyscraper; we high school wiseguys called it "The Prude." For less than $10 (no alcohol for high-schoolers) you took your serious girlfriend to the top floor restaurant for a great meal. Ten bucks was a day’s work for me in the early 60s.

For a buck, though, you could go with your buddies to The Prude’s observation deck and see Grant Park and the Art Institute nearby, plus the Shedd Aquarium, Soldier Field and Museums of Science and Industry, Natural History three miles south. Once I took a girl to the Prude. I went on the cheap with my buddies a dozen times or more.

At Christmas from 40 stories, you could see coloured lights on those public buildings. Did they really bring hints of “hopes and fears of all the years”? Maybe, but some lessons take a long time to learn and live in the Chicago of my youth.

Chicago was racially divided long before I was born. Many large neighbourhoods of “coloured people” were scattered about the city. Even though that sounds patronizing today, we didn’t even use that term then—something far more common and crude. White people didn’t go into those neighbourhoods. Those folks didn’t enter ours, except as garbage truck chuckers. We saw black people on buses, occasionally in stores, but for the most part we lived in benign, ignorant segregation.

Except at Christmas. One year Dad and I were assigned to buy the Christmas tree. We returned from Johnny Hoekstra’s used car and—in December—Christmas tree lot with a $2.50 spruce, one side largely bereft of branches. Mom and my sisters took one look and ordered us back to Johnny with a female who knew from trees. A tense hour and a half later, Dad and I were forgiven, with the substitute tree up, awaiting ornaments, tinsel and lights.

But nothing like lights in black neighbourhoods. Every Christmas Eve after opening our presents, we’d pile in the green ’52 Chevy and head two miles north to where three decades later Barack Obama lived and worked. We white Christian folks would tour those middle class black neighbourhoods, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the lights.

“Those folks sure know how to light up a place, but really, it’s garish.”

“We’d sure never waste electricity or money on such superficiality.”

Then we’d head home, sing a few carols and visit Grandpa and Grandma Dekker with Dad’s siblings. There we’d talk more about lights in the black neighborhoods.

I left Chicago after high school. Soon white folks moved to the suburbs. Black people bought our homes.

I was drafted into the US Army the week before US Thanksgiving in 1971. For the first time in my life, I was not merely seeing men of different colour daily. I was sleeping, eating and learning to kill alongside them 24/7 through a winter of record rains, snow and cold in Fort Lewis, Washington. We learned each other’s names. On marches, bivouacs and after training days, we shared our histories.

Now, as I said, Christmas really is about giving and receiving. One Christmas gift I never thought about receiving till Army time was the forgiveness that the Christ child was born to give by giving up his life.

At Fort Lewis I met Clevan, a black teacher, and Juan, a Puerto Rican, from my former Chicago neighbourhood. That winter in Fort Lewis, I told about my Christmas Eve light tours. One evening after lights out, I asked Juan and Clevan for forgiveness for not living in the Light of Christ by staying separate from their people—except to gawk once a year.

They forgave me. We remained friends for years. Forgiveness from Jesus Christ is the gift that always keeps giving.  

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