The train hums along the tracks, but the roar comes from the passengers, a mix of late-morning commuters and holiday revelers, stacked with layers and wrapped with winter accessories, en route to Chicago in the height of the holiday season.
An eight-year-old girl hardly notices, too busy following the snowflakes whip by and add cheer to the passing neighborhoods framed well by the frosted glass. With Christmas-red matching scarf and mittens, her left hand grips the opposite of her co-guardian for the day, Grandma, as Grandpa watches her eyes light up from the seat across.
The stations, all dressed in their holiday best, fly by, each one familiar and foreboding, like a countdown. It’s a tour of Chicago’s D.N.A., which contains everything from open fields to packed-in row houses. The conductor calmly states, “Morgan Park,” and the little girl looks up, her eyes wide, “We’re at the halfway point!”
Grandpa nods and smiles, even giving of chuckle, like a man whose heard a joke too many times. Grandma squeezes the girl’s hand and tries her best to mimic the excitement. Conductors glide through the car, checking tickets as the train nears downtown. The sound is entrancing: clip-clip … clip-clip.
I open my eyes. I’m no longer eight years old. I’m thirty-five, tired with work to do and slightly glazed by experience. I cannot do a lot of things I did back then, nor can any of us. But I can still close my eyes and feel the safety and security of my mittened hands folded into my grandmother’s, with grandpa providing spirit and strength right alongside us.
Visiting the city regularly is neither fun nor reasonable, when you add traffic to growing adult responsibilities. But there are worthy times. Being on the city streets I once walked with my grandparents as an eight-year-old is a pleasant and always-accessible reminder of how much the holiday season in Chicago can warm even the coldest of hearts.
Holiday traditions vary between individuals and families. They can be simple and kind or loud and profound, and most likely are in between. My family had just one holiday necessity: Every Friday before Christmas, my grandparents would pick me up from school, armed with a McDonald’s Happy Meal, and we would drive the fifteen minutes to Union Station in downtown Joliet. My grandfather had a special gruffness about him. To me, he was a giant of a man, and his hands could tell a thousand stories—wrinkled with age but wearing it with strength. My grandma stood a little more than five feet tall but was just as confident. She made you smile on your worst of days. She was compassionate and caring. I still have things I bought with the five-dollar bills she always had ready for me.
After we arrived downtown, our nearly mile-long trek from LaSalle Street Station to Daley Plaza changed paths each year, providing me an early education in the many faces of Chicago. Sometimes we’d wind past the Chicago Board of Trade down LaSalle Street. Men in business suits rushed around impossibly tall buildings, and panhandlers picked out ripe spots. Other years we would cut through one of the buildings, a quick way of warming up for a bit on the colder days. Here, the movers and shakers were calm amid the smell of fresh bagels coming from the first-floor deli. The sights and sounds overloaded the senses as we whirled by.
We would march along until we arrived at Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, the highlight of the trip, a pillar of holiday spender. The grandeur of the building itself, with the iconic green clocks ticking away minutes until Christmas and the soundless golden trumpets protruding above State Street, was worth the trip. It still is.
Through the doors, shiny red and gold ornaments and ribbons hung festively throughout the first floor. We mazed our way through intimidatingly beautiful women promoting cosmetics and perfumes. Women in fancy fur coats and classy cashmere scarves lined the counters, their bracelets clinking against the glass cases. One day I could be right there with them, selecting a signature scent despite arms weighed down by several shopping bags. Another kind of shopper, the hustler, zipped through the floor with bags attached to their hands, nabbing a box of Frango mints as a last-minute stocking stuffer.
Then, it was up and away to the much-anticipated eighth floor. As the elevator doors opened, there stood the Walnut Room’s Great Tree and its forty-plus feet of glory. Each ornament and piece of tinsel artfully arranged to produce maximum sparkle, an overwhelming sight for an child. After reveling in the beauty, trying to inhale it, we’d head down a level to get as close to the tree as possible.
Some years we ate inside the Walnut Room, but often the line was too long and we’d scamper over to The Berghoff, a perfectly acceptable consolation prize. As one of the most historic places in Chicago to dine, it was a place my grandfather often ate during his years working in the city. He would stroll in, sporting painter’s pants, take a seat at the bar, and enjoy a quick burger and Berghoff beer—that’s how I imagined it, anyhow.
But no meal was had before we started at the north end of Field’s and followed each of the holiday-themed windows along State Street. It was my special job to read each window’s “chapter.” There were often crowds of other holiday revelers reading along with us. The magic of animation joined with the whimsical decor to keep us wrapped in the captivating story.
Before starting our walk to the train station, we’d stop at Daley Plaza. What people know as Christkindlmarket, a grand homage to festive open-air German holiday markets, is drastically different from days past. There were a few booths and maybe some activity, but not the displays and shopping spectacular there now. But there was always the Christmas tree, Chicago’s tree, standing tall to become a part of Chicago’s gorgeous skyline during the holiday season. It glowed with hundreds of lights. Adjacent, a quaint shack welcomed visitors, with Santa Claus ready with an open ear.
This annual holiday trip with my grandparents continued until I was in high school. Then, schedules get busier and the cosmetics counter wasn’t as exciting. My grandparents passed away in 2003, just months apart, when I was finishing college. Afraid of the memories, it took me a few years to find my way back to our holiday tradition.
Traditions evolve through the years, but still find a way to connect with those who have memorialized them. People tend to be softer around the holidays, letting go of grudges, seeking reconciliation and hoping to just spend time with those whom they love the most. Maybe it’s the spirit of the season but this annual tradition is one that binds Chicago, and anything that has that potential is as important as ever.
Things are different now, but it’s more of the magical same. The city’s tree is in a new spot, but still impresses; Macy’s is the new name, but it’s just as vibrant. The city’s holiday magic can be a great equalizer for all of us, the suburbanites to the Loopers. We are one Chicago with hopes of collecting some holiday magic and letting it flow through us. We have crime, corruption, traffic, and construction, and we have a magnificent late-year reset opportunity, one that, if we let it, allows us to push mind over matter and love our fellow man, whoever she or he may be.
I will never forget the cold air hitting my face as we stepped off the train, holding the hands of my grandparents as we crossed each street block after block nor the looks of happiness on their faces as I took in the beauty of Chicago during the holiday season each year. Amended for every individual, these memories we all have. While now my trips each year aren’t exactly the same, there is still the spirit and memory of that eight-year-old girl, mittened hands entwined with those of her grandparents, that lives on and always will.