Frango mints and clementines
Christmasing in Chicago
I was asked by a friend in Honolulu what Christmas is like in my adopted hometown.
My first thought was, “Is it that different?” That’s when I realized my own Christmas-feels have changed so much since I first stepped off that Northwest Airlines 757 flight those many years ago.
I’ve come a long way from Shaka Santa, the Honolulu City Lights parade, Big Santa at Ala Moana, and custard pies and cocoa puffs from Liliha Bakery, gao (tikoy) slowly cooking away in bamboo steamers, plates of stamped moon cakes, bowls of hot saimin at Likelike Drive Inn with extra red char siu and green onion (Christmas colors), and kadomatsu adorning the front doors of Hawaii homes to ward off the evil spirits ahead of the new year.
I sort of forgot about all that.
And yes, I am ashamed that I, the Kalihi-boy once so proud of my island roots, am forgetting my own Oahu heritage. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when I haven’t been home at all for Christmas for 16 years.
I’ve traded t-shirt and shorts, sweating as I walk King Street towards the Oahu Market, for Tommy Hilfiger dress shirts and slacks and a formal wool Ralph Lauren topcoat as I brace through the chilly winds of the Chicago lakefront, or a barn coat, flannel and jeans in Madison, Wisconsin—my other home.
A couple million out of the 9.4 that live in metropolitan Chicagoland descend on downtown each week from all reaches of the region to fulfill rote Christmas traditions—dine at the Walnut Room, pace around the old Marshall Field’s department store building to see the Christmas window scenes, drink gluhwein at Daley Plaza from specially-minted ceramic mugs each is so proud to take home. They pore over the hand-carved wooden knick knacks from Germany as they’re devouring little paper boats of currywurst and schnitzel or hot slices of apfelstrudel.
They’re meandering down State Street towards the romantically-lit Chicago River munching on handfuls out of little blue and gold waxed bags from Garrett’s — caramel and cheese popcorn mixed together, odd to the Chicago plebe.
The official city Christmas tree is a tower of bright in the dim of Millennium Park where hundreds line up for a chance to ice skate on the deck below The Bean to the sounds of street performers belting out Darlene Love’s 1963 classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” or Mariah Carey’s ubiquitous 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas is You,” on the saxophone. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the faint sound of beating of the Chicago bucket boys — drumming on upturned white plastic buckets for a couple dollars.
Families bundled up like fatted dolls of wool and polyester fleece wobble down Michigan Avenue with large paper bags (7 cent Chicago tax per bag) draped at their wrists as they try to ignore panhandlers begging for two bucks for a tall Starbucks dark roast. It’s not that our homeless are of a classier sort, but the options for a warming cup downtown are quite limited.
Chicago is very much a place where locals become tourists in their own town as soon as the cold hits, and the crisp air makes the holiday lights strung up around each city sidewalk tree look ever the more brighter.
But there are also my favorite Christmas-feels at home in my lakefront apartment, with the heat turned up, covered in quilts, hot mugs of coffee, a box of Frango mints, a plateful of clementines, and the ocassional friend to share in movies, music, and conversations—about Christmas in Honolulu.