Nostalgic Noel

December 2011/January 2012 View more


It’s a paradox of our modern times: Despite the incessant march of technology and the constant quest for smaller, faster and more convenient, everywhere you look these days it seems more and more people would rather reflect on the past. From fashion to television to lifestyles, a yearning for the “way things were” (whether real or imagined) continues to make “retro” the next big thing—looking back as a wave of the future, so to speak.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the holiday season would naturally be adopted into this throwback movement, given its reliable penchant for triggering selective joyous memories and hazy Currier & Ives imagery. Was it all as special and magical back then as we seem to imagine it now? Maybe not. But we all tend to fall into the trap of feeling a little nostalgic for something we maybe never really had in the first place from time to time.

So perhaps there’s something to be said for suspending reality for a few weeks and treating the holiday season as something of a prolonged daydream. After all, the “reality” of eggnog would hardly recommend it as an everyday beverage choice, yet who thinks twice about a traditional glass in December? Maybe there’s something to be said for applying the lessons of that nog to the season as a whole—leaving the harder truths of our fast-paced world to the other eleven months of the year and immersing ourselves in the memories and revelries of an old-fashioned Christmas. Here are a few local ideas for stepping back in time.

Merry Matinee Memories

With its glittering town-square marquee, French Renaissance-inspired lobby, and enormous single screen, the 1920s-era Tivoli Theatre in downtown Downers Grove is a throwback no matter what happens to be playing. But life truly imitates art when the retro holiday vibe really kicks in for the theater’s annual matinee screenings of the 1946 Frank Capra small-town classic It’s a Wonderful Life. As family members of all ages fill every one of the 1,012 seats in the house (at only $5 a head) and sing along to pre-show carols played on the in-house Wurlitzer pipe organ, the scene at these shows (benefitting the local charity Sharing Connections) makes even Bedford Falls look positively Pottersville in comparison. It’s enough to make you want to run out of the theater and down snowy Main Street shouting, “Merry Christmas, Downers Grove!” in your best Jimmy Stewart voice to confused passersby. In addition to this blockbuster weekend, the Tivoli also runs a month-long holiday film series on select weeknights in December, with titles like White Christmas and The Bells of St. Mary’s helping to revive the spirits of Christmases past.

It’s a Wonderful Life
December 3 to 4, 1:30 p.m.
Tivoli Theatre
5021 Highland Avenue,
Downers Grove


C’mon, It’s Lovely Weather

Another Christmas memory from the silver screen comes courtesy of Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan sharing a horse-drawn sleigh ride for two through the snowy countryside in the 1945 classic Christmas in Connecticut. These days, of course, the congestion of modern suburbia and the expenses of equine care have conspired to all but eliminate the sleigh as a viable means of everyday commuting. But thanks to the good folks and hardworking draft horses at the Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton, modern-day area residents can nevertheless bundle up, grab a thermos of hot chocolate and enjoy a brisk trip—not only through the forest preserve, but back in time as well.

Danada Equestrian
December 27 to 31, 12 to 2 p.m.
$5 adults, $2 kids (5 to 12)
3S507 Naperville Road,


Hatchet Job

Believe it or not, people used to head out into the forest rather than down to the crawlspace to find the family Christmas tree—an inconceivable notion in an age when even an artificial tree that (gasp!) isn’t pre-lit seems like a relic of the past. But for those who consider choosing and decorating a real tree to be a holiday activity worth sharing and experiencing together as a family—rather than a chore to be checked off a list—there are still a few places in the area where you can grab a blade and carve out some lasting memories.

At Ide Christmas Tree Farm in Downers Grove, for example, it’s been all about the trees for the past half-century. No petting zoos or inflatable bouncers here—just 45,000 spruces and pines ranging from five to 15 feet tall, all packed onto 35 suburban acres. Wander the rows for as long as it takes to find the perfect tannenbaum, cut it down with your saw (or one of theirs), pay a flat fee, tie it to your car, and head home for a trimming party. You can even complete your old-fashioned tree with some hand-strung popcorn-and-cranberry garland (though it might be wise to eschew the candles in favor of something a bit more modern for illumination).

Ide Christmas Tree Farm
November 25 to December 18
$60 for any tree (cash only)
1500 83rd Street,
Downers Grove


Pining for Pastries

There’s nothing quite like the scent of a busy kitchen at the holidays, but with the perennially hectic schedules in most households these days, it’s probably more likely to be someone else’s busy kitchen. Sure, we might find the time to crank out a batch of those green-dyed cornflake wreaths, but the more complex and time-intensive baking assignments of Decembers past are unlikely to work their way back onto our modern agendas anytime soon, leaving those aromatic memories to linger only in fond recollections.

Fortunately, that mythical kitchen from the past is very much a present-day sensation in nearby Western Springs, where the nearly six-decade institution Kirschbaum’s is a page right out of a turn-of-the-century cookbook. From its cash-only policy to its throwback signage, this place represents the oldest of the old school in all the right ways, but especially where it counts the most—in the cookies and pastries and cakes and pies that it reliably cranks out all year long. Come December, of course, that mouth-watering roster includes beautifully frosted Christmas tea cookies, rich pecan pies, and even a tasty, non-ironic take on the much-maligned fruitcake.

Kirschbaum’s Bakery
Tuesday to Friday, 7a.m. to 6p.m.
Saturday, 7a.m. to 5:30p.m.
825 Burlington Avenue,
Western Springs