It was holiday time last year, and many in Chicago were shocked at comments made by Cardinal Francis George likening the gay liberation movement and the Pride Parade to “something like the Klu Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.” After a backlash from Chicago’s LGBT community plus a Tribune editorial, the Cardinal apologized for his remarks in early January.
I won’t rehash that controversy, but the association of the KKK and their trademark cross-burnings returned to me a memory of a cross lit once in Oak Park in a different manner and with a different intent.
My grandfather, Albert Gargiulo, came to this country in 1920 from Naples. He was a cattivo, or rascal, back in Italy, frequently in trouble and unable to finish the equivalent of sixth grade. The $200 in lire his father gave him as he boarded a ship in Naples was gambled away by the time he arrived in New York. Within a few days he came to Chicago and spent the 1920s employed as a manual laborer in a multitude of jobs. In 1930, he landed a groundskeeper gig at Wrigley Field, where he stayed until he retired in 1966.
Along the way my grandfather developed into a bit of a craftsman, building and fixing things with hammer, nails, screws and wood. I recall work benches at home, both in the garage and basement of the three-flat that he and my grandmother eventually owned in Oak Park (they were forced to move from the West Side when construction began on the Congress Expressway in 1949, eliminating their home in the process).
One area of his craftsmanship involved building most of his own Christmas decorations. There never seemed to be any store-bought decorations around. The closest he got was buying the colored bulbs he used, together with purchased wire and sockets, to build a complete string of lights.
But his most curious creation had to be when he fashioned a couple of two-by-fours, some wiring, sockets and large, C9 colored bulbs. The result was a decoration I’d never seen before or since: a lighted Christmas crucifix.
According to my father, my grandfather built this Christmas cross sometime in the early 1950s, and it hung outside and in the front of their Oak Park home at 178 N. Lombard Ave. each December until they moved in 1975.
As a kid, I never saw beyond the cross’ unique design and large colored lights, each placed neatly about 6 or 8 inches apart on both the horizontal and vertical sections. It never dawned on me that perhaps it was inappropriate to use a symbol connected with Christ’s death in association with the event marking His birth. And my sense of history was not deep enough to think of a more nefarious connection to burning crosses.
My thinking was probably the same as it was for my grandfather: Christmas is about Jesus Christ, a cross signifies Christ, and adding some illumination to this universally recognized icon would promote some Christmas spirit.
Santa would certainly never miss this house.
As far as my dad recalls, there was never a protest or controversy or a decree from Rome about the cross. No doubt today some of the devout and intolerant might decry such a creation as a perversion of faith or worse. But they would miss the message of one man’s simple, individual celebration of Christmas.