On a hazy, winter night just prior to Christmas, Colleen Clow, 43, and her sister, Keldra Rabichow, 31, patiently await a swell of St. Giles "church ladies," and their out-of-town female kin, at a table in a back party room at La Majada Restaurant on Harrison Street in Oak Park.
They are competing, believe it or not, in a homespun Crayola coloring contest for grown-ups. It is their holiday tradition, Clow says.
It is Sue's Christmas Coloring Contest.
This year, the group's "silver anniversary," 49 crafty gals, representing a local creative tour de force spanning three generations of grandmothers, mothers, daughters and daughter-in-laws, crowded in. Year after year these women spend hours creating theme-inspired entries in many art forms — elaborately colored and decorated pages, ornaments, confections, wreaths, skits, songs — all in good fun and all will be judged by their peers during.
It started in 1986 with the whimsical notion of two coloring enthusiasts from Oak Park: Sue Hohman, now 73, and Dianne Ebert, now 69. They wanted to see if their friends liked to color with crayons, too.
To launch the event, they mailed "a simple coloring book page" with contest instructions to a circle of friends from their parish.
They challenged the 12 recipients in secrecy to stay inside the lines of a festive living room setting. Closer to Christmas, the "holiday jingle" instructed them to gather at a local restaurant to eat, drink, be merry, reveal their entry and then good naturedly judge it.
What resulted were crayoned pictures decorated to the nines, some with lace curtains and miniature Christmas lights affixed to the page. One year, Hohman says, a friend put in the time and effort to craft miniature "needle-pointed" ornaments on a cardboard Christmas tree cutout.
With that, everyone's boundless creativity was out of the box, and more family members wanted in.
"Our little coloring book contest has grown to about 50-60 people now, so it totally got out of hand. What can I say?" says Hohman.
Color me creative ...
The Clow sisters, who are organizing the SCCC this year, say their immediate families stayed up all night prior to the event to affix trees to hats to creatively communicate the story of their lives; created naughty and nice Christmas stockings; and in 2000, the year their mother, Sally Clow, died, Colleen fashioned a beautiful stuffed white angel in her memory. The rest of the group used it as another opportunity to extend their condolences to their good friend's children, and pay homage to the woman who perpetually "out-crafted" them all.
"Every year, participating in this becomes a priority for me," says Carlotta Madonia, 67, of River Forest. "I have won a couple of times, most recently with my daughter and daughter-in-law."
Several years ago, Gina Madonia, now 39, did a back flip into the back room of La Majada, taking with her a string of holiday lights. Unscathed on all fronts, the former high school gymnast completed her family's holiday cheerleading routine and that year they won.
Five years ago, when Hohman announced her imminent transition from organizer to participant, she expected the annual contest to end. Instead, without missing a beat, the younger generation has enthusiastically stepped up to keep their treasured holiday tradition intact.
"What can I say? We have been to hell and back together, being at kids' weddings and baby showers, and saying prayers for kids or parents who are sick," Madonia says. "People in this group have lost spouses, lost children, lost grandchildren, and undergone all sorts of surgeries, and as individuals, we are just fortunate that we have a group of people like that who genuinely care about one another."