Christmas Around the World has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember! As a child, my holiday season was started and finished at the Museum. My fellow dancers and their parents met at the museum on Thanksgiving morning to begin the decorating process. This was no small task back in the 1960’s as the men from each of the counties had to put the lights on while the ladies carefully laid the ornaments out on the tables and dusted them off. The trees were taller then, 18 feet is the height that comes to my mind and the top was accessed by scaffolding as well as tall ladders, very tall ladders. As kids we stayed around long enough to put an ornament or two on the lower branches of the tree, sign the large styrofoam ball that indicated the year, and then headed off on the great exploration of the museum. We’d meet back at the tree at the specified time, hang a few more ornaments, and then head down to the Columbian Room for lunch. The cafeteria was full of ethnic volunteers eating turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy before everyone headed out to celebrate the holiday with their family.
Back in those days, each country had a night. Ethnic food was served in the Columbian Room for those coming in to see the show and a special dinner was held for the committee in a private dining room that included the (British) Consulate and MSI dignitaries. We then headed up to the auditorium to present our program, one country per evening! As a young dancer I remember feeling very important as we had our own dressing room with lighted make up mirrors. It was a magical place…the auditorium had closed circuit television, backdrops, curtains, lights, and a giant sound board operated for many years by Mike Kwiatkowski, and his assistant Wolfgang. Curtains were drawn, props and backdrops were changed and the show went on! One of the highlights was getting ice cream in Dixie cups with wooden spoons at the conclusion of the performance. In those early years we represented Great Britain, whereas now we decorate the tree and do the performance for Scotland, with England, Ireland, and Wales having their own trees and performances. Many of the countries would draw so many attendees that they would bring them in by the bus load and have multiple performances on the weekends to accommodate the crowds.
Somewhere back in those early years my mother, Patricia LeNoble, emcee of the show, came across a record of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and decided to perform it during one of the costume changes. The rest as they say is “history”. With the exception of two or three years, Pat performed her rendition of this song to the delight of the audience members young and old. Her last performance was in December of 2009, a month shy of her 87th birthday and it was just as compelling as it had always been. My mom passed away on May 29, 2011 at 88 years old, having lived a very full life using all her God given talents until the end.
On New Year’s Day we would gather again to dismantle the tree, and carefully box the ornaments for storage. My father recalls that while we started out having to store the boxes ourselves, there was a time when the museum stored all the boxes for all the countries and had them waiting at our tables when we arrived. Once again, the kids would set off to explore while the adults did the all the work. For many of us, we had been together to celebrate “Hogmanay”, the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration which ended with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” by Scottish Poet, Robert Burns.
I have seen many changes in Christmas Around the World during the 50+ years that I have been involved first as a dancer, then as a backstage helper, then having dance students of my own perform and finally taking over those duties from my mom about 25 years ago. It is this rich Chicago tradition that continues onto the third generation as my daughters have both been involved since they were born. What remains important is that we all share in our collective ethnic heritage and I’m sure I speak for many of the countries represented when I say “thank you” to the Museum of Science and Industry for the 70 years of keeping this celebration of our cultures an important part of the Chicago holiday celebration.