We asked around and discovered that most people have a story. Most of us, in fact, seem to have one thing in common: "a holiday we'll never forget."
This Christmas was out of sight John Rice grew up in Oak Park in a big family, so he undoubtedly has plenty of holiday stories to tell, but his most memorable was the Christmas he didn't seeâ€"literally.
It was 1980, he had just gotten married, and they were making the rounds on Christmas Eve, visiting his wife's side of the family. After several stops, he was ready to head home, but his wife suggested one more. They were poor, she said, so there wouldn't be many presents to open. Well, they must have charged everything, John says, because they were opening presents for what seemed like hours.
This was the era of hard contact lenses, and his eyes started bothering him. "I was blinking a lot, and then my eyes started killing me," he recalled. They ended up at the emergency room, where the doctor diagnosed scratched corneas.
"I had patches over both my eyes on Christmas Day," he said. "I was a blind man. I had to feel my presents."
His family described them to him. "I couldn't see the happy looks on people's faces," he lamented. "Their voices sounded nice though." He was led from room to room.
"I've resented that family ever since," he observed. Did any spiritual insights result from his temporary handicap?
"It taught me a lesson about materialism," he said. "I learned that poor people shouldn't charge so many presents."
Richard the Red-Nosed Painter
"My middle name is disaster," quipped Peg Studney. Many years ago, in another Oak Park, far, far removed (but in the same house where they still live today), Peg and her husband Irv retained the services of a "dear friend" named Richard, a painter/decorator, to brighten their dining room and parlor in time for Christmas. He showed up on Christmas Eve. The tree was still out in the yard, covered with ice and snow.
He emptied the rooms of furniture but left the piano, and kept sitting down to play exuberant versions of "Richard the Red-Nosed Painter," so he wasn't making a lot of progress.
"I was frantic," Peg said, trying to take care of last-minute holiday preparations. "Then Irv's back went out."
They called another dear friend, a chiropractor, who made a house callâ€"at 8 p.m.
"Richard was still singing at the piano while Irv was lying flat on his back on the dining room table, yelping in pain. Then my brother arrived from New York. He took one look at the scene and said, 'I must have the wrong house.'"
At 3 a.m., Irv and Peg's brother were out in the backyard removing the snow and ice so they could put up the tree in the newly painted parlor. Then they had to assemble all the toys for their seven kids.
The kids woke up at 4:30 and starting ripping into the presents.
"I hadn't slept at all," Peg recalls. "It was the worst Christmas I can remember. I won't go into the others."
Retail creates its own special versions of holiday hell, and Val Camilletti has seen her share. The owner of Val's halla Records has the kind of business where you order today, get it tomorrow, but things can get a little tense as Christmas draws nigh. Last-minute shoppers put in late orders, and until a few years ago, Val scheduled the final order to arrive on Christmas Eve, which doesn't leave much margin for error.
Adding to the tension of the situation, every year, she says, NPR radio introduces some CD on WBEZ "that listeners just can't live without." A few years ago, it was the Madagascar Guitar Players.
Which somehow makes the ensuing Christmas Eve blizzard seem even more incongruous. The UPS guy usually delivered the final order about 10 in the morning, but he was delayed by the weather, so people started calling every hour for progress reports.
Traffic was barely crawling, Val said. "This was a serious blizzard." She closes at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve, so at 4 p.m., a crowd of Madagascar Guitar fans and Val were standing in the open doorway peering out into the sideways snow, looking for the brown truck that would make or break their entire holidays.
"I mean this wasn't the Christmas turkey," Val says. "This was a CD. If a 4-year-old were waiting, I could understand it. These were adults."
The truck finally pulled up at 4:30 to wild jubilation. "The driver never got a greeting like that in his life," Camilletti recalls.
She no longer does Christmas Eve orders. The last one comes in on Dec. 23, so be forewarned.
"My stomach can't handle it," Val said.
Belief dies hard
Growing up in Cove, N.C. near Asheville, one of 10 siblings, Carolyn Poplett, director of the Economy Shop, believed in Santa Claus "for a long, long time." Her belief resisted even near-disasters like the year she and her brothers and sisters got up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning and discovered to their horror that Santa hadn't arrived yet.
"Get back to bed!" their father bellowed from upstairs. Apparently his plan was to beat the kids downstairs.
Somehow he must have pulled it off because Carolyn testifies that she still believed in Santa in the fourth grade. One day on the way home from school, her sister played the spoiler.
"I hit her with my geography book," she recalled.
Wounded, her sister retorted, "And there's no Easter Bunny either."
"Well, I don't care about him," Carolyn replied with wounded pride.
Don't throw the turkey out with the diaper water
"Allegedly, it was my diaper water the turkey fell into," John Williams, Oak Park Township Youth Services director, began with true storytelling flair, when we asked for his contribution.
This was the pre-disposable-diaper era, which meant unmentionables soaking in the sink. Everything was done in the sink, Williams recalled. "We even raised turtles in that sink."
When the turkey tumbled in, John's mother, seeing that no one had noticed, fished it out, washed it thoroughly, and served it. John's grandfather, the story goes, said it was "the best turkey I've ever tasted."
Many years later, Williams said, his brother's dog, driven mad by the heavenly smell no doubt, jumped up on the table, grabbed the half-carved turkey carcass, and started running around the house with it.
"We let go of that one," Williams reports.
Santa Claus vs. the Martians?
Mark Mazrimas, marketing director at Classic Cinemas, which owns and operates the Lake Theatre, thinks the worst Christmas movie they ever showed was Jack Frost with Michael Keaton, playing an old rock 'n' roller alienated from his son, who dies and comes back to life as a talking snowman (c. 1998). "My favorite scene," Mazrimas said, "was at the end when he melts away."
He also remembers Santa Claus vs. the Martians with Pia Zadora. "This is really awful," Mazrimas warned.
If you're planning to rent the video of Jack Frost, he said, it should be accompanied by a stiff drink.
The Thanksgiving visitor
This past Thanksgiving, Sherlynn Reid hosted the feast, attended by two of her daughters, their families, and some friends. Her husband, Henry, died 11 years ago. "My kids like to tell stories about me," Reid said. In particular, they like to poke fun at her because she was always getting lost when she drove them somewhere. Then the doorbell rang. Someone checked, but no one was there. The third time it happened, Sherlynn herself went to the door.
When she returned, she said, "It was your father. He said, 'Stop telling stories about your mother.'"
All three of her daughters will be present for Christmas dinner. Could get interesting.
Laurel McMahon, president of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and head of River Forest's 125th Anniversary Committee, contributed this recollection:
"The year Trivial Pursuit debuted and was the rage of Christmas giving, Dennis and I received the game for Christmas. After most of our guests had departed, we sat down with our good friends Margo Cavenagh and Mark Dubnick and my brother John for a game.
"It turned out to be a ferocious competitionâ€"so intense
that when we heard the popping sound from somewhere in the house, we did not investigate. It was a fiercely cold and windy day, and we were warmed by battle. At some point we heard the gentle flow of water down the oak staircase at the front of the house. We looked up to see water dripping from the second floor through the ceiling into the downstairs hallway.
"We raced upstairs to find that the lovely hot-water radiator, that curved along the bottom of our turret windows, had frozen and burst. There was no way to stem the flow of water until the system had drained to the level of the crack.
"We hurried to find rags and buckets and cleaned up as best we could. But the game never stopped. As some of us sopped up the water and secured rugs and possessions, members of the opposing teams continued to call out the questions.
"My recollection is that my team won."
According to Jack Stockman, December in the Stockman household falls into the "full metal Christmas" category. According to Kathy Stockman, most families say, "We're going to decorate the tree tonight." In their household, they say, "We're going to decorate the tree this week."
The estimate on their ornament collection ranges from 500 to 1,000. "It takes Jack eight hours just to string the lights," says Kathy.
They got married a week before Christmas, so December is a special time for the Stockmans. Every year they throw a holiday party, and about five years ago, approximately a half hour before the guests started arriving, the 9-foot tree fell over. Actually, it got caught in the chandelier and became hopelessly entangled. The tree tipped enough, however, for the water in the stand to spill all over the floor. They were still mopping when the first guest arrived.
Kathy theorizes they put too many ornaments on the front side, and the weight was too much. Her father, a carpenter, managed to secure the tree with cables. The party went off as planned ... more or less. Hey, an ornament avalanche is a great ice-breaker.
It doesn't pay to peek, says Ruth Hamilton, mother of noted novelist Jane Hamilton. One December decades ago, Jane's older sister expressed a strong desire for a particular kind of doll. Ruth had already bought one and had it stashed on the top shelf in her closet. But while paging through a catalog one day, they spotted a doll and Ruth asked if that was the kind she wanted. Her daughter, excitedly, said yes.
Unbeknownst to Ruth, the inquisitive girl went hunting in the closet shortly thereafter and found the doll on the shelf and fell in love with it. Ruth, however, thinking she wanted the doll from the catalog, ordered it, then sent back the one she had already bought.
On Christmas morning, her daughter feigned delight and masked her surprise when she received the "other" doll. She couldn't admit that she had peeked, so she kept it to herselfâ€"until this week when, in response to our query, Ruth called her now 54-year-old daughter to ask about Christmas disasters and her daughter finally, "delightedly," 'fessed up.
The Christmas Eve surprise
Doug Deuchler, regular JOURNAL contributor (and Downtown Oak Park's Santa) recalls:
"It was Christmas, 1959, and I was 13. My mother had died of breast cancer that fall and my father was so distraughtâ€"they were only 39 and 40â€"that he didn't want to do Christmas in any way. Like most men, Christmas was 'done' by his wife and, God love him, he just couldn't cope with even making an attempt at it. He threw himself into his job and virtually pretended it wasn't Christmas. We were supposed to enjoy the tree and the whole deal at his mother's home.
"In my first major act of parental defiance, my sister and I planned a secret but major Christmas Eve party at our house and told him nothing of it. We invited all our relatives and half the neighborhood. We broke open piggy banks and spent money that was set aside for piano lessons to buy a tree.
"We dragged the tree home on a sled and kept it hidden until an hour before the party, then quickly put it up with the help of an army of neighbor kids before our father came home from work on Christmas Eve. I remember also drafting cousins to help us make huge vats of Rice Krispie Treats. The whole thing was dangerous yet exhilarating.
"People got into the project and brought tons of food. Hams and smoked fish and all sorts of cakes showed up. Women brought aprons and took over the kitchen and serving. It was wonderful. That party took on a life of its own. Yet it was completely scary because it got so out of our controlâ€"a surprise Christmas Eve party!
"We feared Dad might throw a fit like Christ with the money-changers and toss everyone out into the snow once he arrived home and realized what was happening. But he didn't. I guess he finally recognized that we needed Christmas so much."
Learning to compromise
According to JOURNAL columnist John Hubbuch, "My wife's family was a 'white lights' family. My family was a 'colored lights' family. Each year we argued and debated this. One year she got so mad at me as we discussed this that she jumped out of the car and started walking down Harlem Avenue. That's the first and only time that ever happened. Eventually we worked it out. We now alternate multicolored and white lights."
He also recalls the time he buried the hatchet, literally, in the floor in frustration when he couldn't get the Christmas tree to fit the stand. "I threw the hatchet, and it took a gouge out of the floor. It remained there, year after year, in silent testimony to my anger, stupidity and ignorance."
He has other disasters, "but these catch the flavor, all of which make the holidays very memorable."
We couldn't agree more.