One of my favorite places in the world to be is on State Street in Chicago at Christmastime. I lived on the other side of Lake Michigan in St. Joseph MI for three years. I could drive 35 minutes to the train station in Michigan City IN and take the Southshore into downtown Chicago for $7 each way. When I first arrived in Michigan, I was engaged to a guy I met in Seattle, but the relationship didn’t survive the move. Our coupling ended right before the snow arrived, and this Southern gal was at a loss for what to do in a really long Michigan winter. It seemed that all of the decisions of my life had shipwrecked me in a place with weather I couldn’t fathom and Yankees I didn’t understand. The answer, it seemed to me, was to throw myself into the best things the area had to offer, and Chicago – I had heard – was a great place to visit.
I traveled initially with friends on a day trip, but I finally got courageous enough to head out on my own for a weekend. I had decided I could wait around to meet a man in the small rural town to escort me, or I could suck it up and be adventurous like a grown-up city girl. I booked a hotel room at the Renaissance with my Marriott points, packed a small rolling bag and checked the train schedule. I learned pretty quickly that people wanted to be on their own on the train, so I people-watched and sat in silence while I watched the Indiana wetlands roll by. It wasn’t long until the Chicago skyline filled the window.
I had so much fun exploring the city and eating at all of the great restaurants that I’d make the trip back many times, but my favorite trip was around Christmas that year. My boss fixed me up with a guy she knew, and he suggested that we head into Chicago for last-minute Christmas shopping. I had been to New York at Christmastime, and I thought it was a wonderful romantic second date. I could see us walking hand in hand down Michigan Avenue with packages on every appendage. Surely there would be skating and Christmas music along the way.
I had to learn to dress for the cold. It didn’t take long to swap out skirts for pants and long johns after a strong Michigan wind blew my skirt up at the front door of the office. I had no idea that cold like that even existed. My bones shivered when that wind hit my skin. But, I was determined to learn how to live here. So, I was prepared with my hats, gloves, snow boots, scarves and long johns. Bring it on! I thought to myself. Well … as the date got closer, I noticed there was a blizzard in the forecast on the day of our date. I was really disappointed because this was the only time we could go, and surely we could not go out into the wintery equivalent of a hurricane. He called the night before, and I said I was disappointed that the weather had messed up our outing. “Oh, we can still go,” he laughed. “In a blizzard”, I asked. “Are you sure?” I’m not sure if he wanted to impress me with his Yankee winter skills, or if he was serious, but he assured me that we would indeed go Christmas shopping in Chicago in a blizzard.
The snow started earlier that day in earnest. The highest snow drifts this Louisiana gal had ever seen were already piling up on the road as we drove to the train station. He was going to drive, but he said we should ride the train due to the weather. I could imagine the two of us alone on the train headed into the station while weary conductors were anxiously waiting for the weather shutdown. But, no …. the train was full. I thought to myself that these people are surely crazy. Maybe the winter freezes up brain tissue and the thaw renders it practically useless. Southerners would never go shopping in a hurricane. And we wouldn’t get in a car if there was a snowflake anywhere within 150 miles.
We arrived at Randolph station in Chicago, and, sure enough, Michigan Avenue was abuzz. Wall-to-wall people were bundled up and trudging through the wintry mess on the ground created by massive snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. We had dinner, shopped for candy and went to Marshall Field’s over on State Street. It’s now Macy’s, but Marshall Fields is a fabulous old department store with a wonderful tradition. They decorate their windows with some kind of holiday story every single year. I’m not even going to try to describe it because you have to see it to believe it, but I got my first taste of what would be a yearly journey for me to see what story Marshall Fields’ windows would tell.
Marshall Field’s Christmas Montage
Families with children bundled together looked in the windows and followed the plot. I imagined that these same parents had done this with their parents as little kids. The windows have been decorated since the 1870s, so it is indeed a fabulous old tradition. I was thrilled that Macy’s kept it when they took over. My hands and toes frozen through my wintry clothes, we walked all over State Street and Michigan Avenue in the blowing snow and freezing temperatures. When we were done, we rode the train back to Indiana. The car was literally buried in snow at the station, and I was worried sick that we would not be able to get it out or be able to drive home. I did bite my nails a few times in the slip-sliding drive home, but he got me home safely. I’ll forever have that Christmas memory of shopping in the Windy City in the middle of a blizzard.
I made a point to go there every year when I lived there between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was always cold, and I can remember bundling up so that only my eyes were showing. My eyelashes would freeze from the water in my eyes. I ventured out on my own or with my husband when we married. The tradition was to go to State Street, Marshall Field’s and Michigan Avenue. I always asked for that trip in lieu of presents because I knew that memories are better than stuff. I just sold my wedding ring – as beautiful as it was- this week, but I’ll have those memories forever. I know right now the wind is blowing. There are families standing outside Macy’s looking in the windows. The Christkindlmarket is filled with people shopping for German foods and products. The ice-skating rink is packed with skaters whirling around in the night air. Michigan Avenue is teeming with shoppers. I’ll bet there’s a line at Garrett’s for popcorn, and my favorite Starbucks’ entrance is filthy with muck and slush brought in on snow boots.
Brrrrrrrr …. I think I need some hot chocolate. My fingers and toes are already freezing. I guess I could always turn down the AC. :)