What Christmas says in Chicago
December 24, 2013 2:00PM
Members of Roosevelt University’s 50 member chorus sing carols in Grant park. They will sing on the mal bellari show Christmas Day from I to 5 p.m. In the group are Patricia A. Bell, Darlene Weissblatt, Barry M. Altenberg, Muriel Weinstein and Barbara Trauffer.
Updated: January 26, 2014 6:18AM
To the columnist Mike Royko, Christmas said Chicago is tough on powerless people.
To the novelist Nelson Algren, Christmas said life is a horror.
To the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Christmas said it’s OK to dream big.
To the short story writer Sandra Cisneros, Christmas said some things are so good you can hardly stand it.
We came across a 1963 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks in which she muses on what Mary, mother of the Christ child, would make of our world today. Here’s the poem, “A Penitent Considers Another Coming of Mary,” in full:
If Mary came would Mary
Forgive, as Mothers may,
And sad and second Saviour
Furnish us today?
She would not shake her head and leave
This military air,
But ratify a modern hay,
And put her Baby there.
Mary would not punish men —
If Mary came again.
Christmas said to Brooks that our violent world, even now, is not forsaken. But she was just one Chicagoan, living in one time, and Christmas conjures up different thoughts and feelings in each of us. What we make on Christmas Day of black sidewalk ice, a homeless woman in a doorway or a coddled baby is a matter of personal constitution and choices made, consciously or not. What we see says who we are.
Royko’s Christmas tale, first published in the Chicago Daily News in 1967, is familiar to many Chicagoans, as it has been reprinted many times. Royko’s Mary and Joseph arrive in Chicago one cold December day, can’t find a place to stay, get bounced around by dehumanizing bureaucracies, get tossed in jail and a mental-health ward for making crazy claims about giving birth to the son of God, and finally flee town on a Greyhound bus.
Algren, writing in The Nation in 1952, offers a sarcastic “Merry Christmas to all” after serving up a 1,000-word screed about the “vast and terrible” suffering in big cities like Chicago. He writes: “We lead the world today in incidence of insanity, criminality, alcoholism, narcoticism, cancer, homicide, and perversion in sex as well as perversion just for the pure hell of the thing.”
Hansberry was just 25 and four years away from writing “A Raisin in the Sun” when she chose on Christmas Day, 1955, to confide in her journal: “My work. It is only here on paper that I dare say it like that. ‘My work!’ Oh, what I think I must tell this world! Oh the time that I crave — and the peace — and the power.” For Hansberry, Christmas was a day to dare to embrace possibilities.
Sandra Cisneros brings up Christmas more than once in her work, including a quick and perfect mention in her story collection “The House on Mango Street.” When Cisneros’ adolescent narrator and the girl’s friends dress up in high heels for the first time, they notice how men stare. “We must be Christmas,” the girl says.
George Ade, the best Chicago columnist most of us never heard of, knocked out a little Christmas story in 1902 that gives everyday cynics a comeuppance. In “Mr. Payson’s Satirical Christmas,” a Chicago Scrooge amuses himself by sending relatives the most inappropriate Christmas gifts he can think of — ice skates, for example, for an overweight and graying brother who never gets off the couch. But the tables are turned when each gift is adored by the receiver. The couch-potato brother mistakenly sees in the ice skates a loving message from Mr. Payson that he’s still got some life in him yet.
Royko, no surprise, learned a lot from reading Ade.
Mr. Dooley, the 1890s Archer Avenue bartender who was the creation of the great Peter Finley Dunne, sees Christmas as a day when wishes go unfilled — but not horribly so. Little boys who want ponies get rocking horses. Men who want gold-headed canes get suspenders. “And they conceal their grief Christmas morning,” Mr. Dooley laments, “and try to look pleasant with murder in their hearts.”
Royko, no surprise, learned from reading Dunne, too.
In this little review of how Chicago writers see Christmas, we’ve saved the sweetest view we’ve found for last.
Ray Bradbury — yes, we know he was really from Waukegan — was of the view that every day is Christmas if we’re wise enough to know it. In his 2007 poem, “Dogs Think That Every Day is Christmas,” Bradbury urges us to charge ahead each and every day with the enthusiasm of happy dogs, tongues lapping and eyes shining.
Now seriously, fellow Chicagoans, wouldn’t you rather buy into Bradbury’s sugary sentiment, if only for Christmas Day, than brood over Algren’s “vast and terrible” suffering? For those of us who prefer to despair over the plight of humanity on emotionally fraught holidays, New Year’s Day is straight ahead.
So Merry Christmas.