The time is right for making memories

This time of year, the Chicago arts scene gives you all the material you need to make lasting memories.

Music is a large part of the holiday scene, of course, and so it was a bit strange to be standing on Michigan Avenue two Saturdays ago amid the mob that grows larger every year to experience the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival and listening to Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi atop a float singing a short portion of "Summertime," which she sings at length (and beautifully) indoors during the Lyric Opera's current production of "Porgy and Bess."

Trying to make sense of that, I found it not hard to travel back and remember how modestly this extravagant parade began, with a couple of horse-drawn carriages, one double-decker bus and a cop car.

The idea for what has now become a popular holiday tradition — an estimated 1million people showed up this year — was that of Marc Schulman. He was then a board member of what is now the Magnificent Mile Association and was then, and still is, the president of Eli's Cheesecake. This is what he said before the first parade in 1992: "It's all meant to be fun, to really kick off the holiday season in a style reminiscent of bygone days. Our hope is that the lighting of the trees will become a holiday highlight."

Now he says: "That may be the most prophetic thing I have ever said. I served as lights chairman for the first five years, and I remember in 1994 when we got Disney, in the form of Mickey and Minnie, to come and be part of the parade. The most magical moment for me is when the procession makes the turn from Oak Street onto to Michigan Avenue and that first block of trees bursts into light. A million lights. A million people. Amazing to think back to how it all started and where we are today. It says a lot about Chicago."

The holidays are when memories hang heaviest. And mostly that's a good thing, even though the mind may recall the night Uncle Henry, overserved from the punch bowl, fell face-first into a bowl of mashed potatoes, or when the family dog ate dad's new slippers.

Years ago, I talked with Kenneth Ames, formerly on the staff of the New York State Historical Society in Albany and a professor who for decades lectured on "Christmas culture."

"There is something universalizing about this Christmas phenomenon," he said. "It levels us, rich and poor, and provides an unspoken bond between all people."

That's a comforting thought, even though we must remember that for many people, in all parts of this area, times are tough. No presents under the tree. No tree.

Still, for those not able to afford lunch in the Walnut Room, the Macy's window decorations are there for free, part of what amounts to a vast holiday gallery as many of us become do-it-yourself artists, painting with lights across wide suburban lawns, in skyscraper windows or on rusty fire escapes.

Christmas traditions come in all sorts of styles: dark and bright and silly and tender. And most of them have to do with arts and entertainment. Some are so familiar to us that we suspect that they are part of our DNA.

Bob Bowker is an esteemed composer, conductor and record producer. Nearly 20 years ago he brought together a couple of dozen of the area's finest vocalists to form the Lakeside Singers (lakesidesingers.com). Though the group performs throughout the year, December is its busiest month, with concerts set for Friday at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute in Evanston; Dec. 8 at The Metropolis in Arlington Heights; Dec. 19 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago; and Dec. 20 at the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville.

Bowker said: "The music gives a sense of tradition. It also evokes memories, and almost all of them are good ones. Most people are familiar with so many of these songs, know the lyrics and like to sing them with other people. By doing that we are connecting to our own humanity."

The Apollo Chorus started performing Handel's "Messiah," that oratorio with its "Hallelujah" chorus representing the epitome of Christmas majesty, in 1879, and it has been at it every year since, doing so again Saturday at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center and Dec. 20 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (apollochorus.org)

ZooLights, the Lincoln Park Zoo's annual free festival of illumination, is much younger. It started Friday and will continue, with a few days off, through Jan.4 (lpzoo.org). The president of Lincoln Park Zoo is Kevin Bell and he was there when it all began, and now he says: "This year, ZooLights is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years, I've witnessed this event transform from a holiday light spectacular to a beloved family tradition. Not only have we seen parents come with their children, but ZooLights has become a multigenerational event where couples, parents and grandparents alike are now continuing the annual trip to the zoo with their loved ones, and we hope to see that trend continue as families continue to grow."

That family experience is present during every performance of "A Christmas Carol," a staple at the Goodman Theatre since 1978, and playing through Dec. 28 (goodmantheatre.org). This year the theater asked patrons, "What makes you joyful?" It got lovely thoughts on all manner of things, including the play (goodmantheatre.org/90/index.php/what-makes-you-joyful).

Brian Kempf wrote: "Just thinking about 'A Christmas Carol' at the Goodman makes me joyful and brings me fond memories. My Aunt has been buying tickets for the family for many years, and I remember going with my grandparents and father who are now deceased. I can't wait to go this year!"

Trudy VanSlooten wrote: "My grandson and I had a joyful evening watching the 'Christmas Carol' together — his first theater play!"

Hector Arteaga wrote: "As a child, my Mom would read me 'A Christmas Carol' around Christmas. Going to the performance every year reminds me of those times and brings me joy."

Yes, the holidays are about memories, and traditions allow us to touch them.

There is a story in Chicagoan Stuart Dybek's latest collection, "Paper Lantern: Love Stories" — which would, by the way, make a fine holiday gift — in which a character says, "I had this sudden awareness of how the moments of our lives go out of existence before we're conscious of having lived them. It's only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Those moments are our lives. Or maybe it's more like those moments are the dots in what we call our lives, or the lines we draw between them, connecting them into imaginary pictures of ourselves."

In other words, go forth and make some memories. There is no better time to do that.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribpub.com

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
51°