By Adam Crohn
Every Christmas, regardless of where I spend it or who I spend it with, the one constant has been a growing list of Christmas movies that was built on a foundation of candy canes and chocolate-covered cherries and strung together with strands of overheating Christmas lights from my childhood. I’m always telling people I’m the most nostalgic person they’ll ever meet, usually as preparation before entering my home and seeing the lack of places to sit or stand due to the enormous amount of 80s toys and memorabilia. I like to keep things close to me that remind me of my childhood, and I had a good one, and I’m thankful for it and lucky to have had it. But no one tells us as kids that when you grow up, regardless of what you become or how well off you are (or aren’t), that life is going to be difficult, and at times you won’t be able to breathe because of how complicated it can be.
But growing up in the 80s, life was perfect, it was simple. And simplicity is priceless and probably taken for granted more than anything in life. I realize that wasn’t reality, because as I was enjoying my simple life of He-Man, Garbage Pail Kids, and Fun-Dip, my parents were going through some of the complications that I now face. But I’m so thankful that I’m the kind of person that has held onto the stuff from back then that reminds me of simpler times. I’ve met so many people that are barren of nostalgia, and don’t realize the soothing power that the simple smell of that neon orange, Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo that every mom bathed their kid in back in the day can have (I keep a bottle in my shower at all times). Sometimes that’s all it takes to be transported back to a warm bath with my Fisher Price Adventure People submarine and that amazing little octopus and diver it came with. And I will admit, sometimes it backfires and I remember that time my aunt jammed my cousin and me into the bath together and he took a massive crap in it. WTF, dude?
But regardless of where you land on the nostalgia meter, I do find that most people of my generation at least experience a bit of time travel by way of movies. I don’t know anyone that watches 1983’s A Christmas Story today and isn’t instantly transported back to the warmest spot in their childhood, wondering if their tongue would really stick to a frozen pole. Over the years, Christmas movies have become permanent staples in our culture with some of the networks running marathons for most of November through January of all the classics, and some flicks getting the 24-hour treatment started by the aforementioned bacchanalia of Ralphie and the Parkers in the near-to-Chicago suburbs of Indiana.
This brings me to my point of how amazing yet strange it is that so many of the best Christmas movies of all time take place in and around Chicago. It’s amazing because that’s where all this stuff I’ve been going on about took place for me. I grew up in the John Hughes world of the Chicago suburbs, with the best and most simple years of my childhood taking place in St. Charles, about 45 minutes outside the city limits. But it’s also strange that so many of the best Christmas flicks are set in Chicago, because, why Chicago? I mean, I love Chicago, but it’s where I grew up. There are so many “Chicago’s” out there, one for everyone that loved the place they grew up in. And sure, Hollywood may not be hip to the nuanced beauty of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, but why not the quaint suburbs of New York or Boston or Seattle?
Regardless of why it happened, I’m thankful that I have so many great Christmas movies that were set in the Chicagoland area to watch during my favorite time of year. It adds one more layer of connectivity between me and the experiences that the characters are going through, regardless of how absurd they may be. And there’s a certain kind of charm that can only be found in these Chicago Christmas tales. They tend to be more family-focused, good-hearted, and free of most current social trends that usually remove people from the simplicity of modern life.
Tonight, I watched Christmas With The Kranks for the first time this year. It’s a relatively new addition to my Yuletide watchlist, but a treat, nonetheless. It came out in 2004, and at that point, I was convinced that no modern movie was capable of ever becoming a holiday classic. They had all already been made and there were plenty of them. I was wrong. The movie straddles a similar line of laughs and charm as Christmas Vacation, but I think is often overlooked because it’s a Tim Allen movie. But regardless of how you feel about him, he shines in it as the dad that nearly ruins Christmas in a neighborhood run by Dan Akroyd who just wants him to hold on to the traditions of the past. But one of the best parts is the ending, as the camera pans out and up to show the neighborhood and all the houses decorated with way too many lights. And in the background, off in the distance, is the skyline of Chicago. You can make out the Hancock building and the Sears Tower, and every time I see it, I get giddy thinking that the story I just watched took place not too far from where I’m sitting.
And most Chicagoans don’t even realize that so many of the great Christmas movies that they watch year after year take place in their city. And I’m talking about the best of the best. The first Home Alone movie from 1990 takes place almost entirely in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, and the second movie at least starts there before going to New York. This isn’t a surprise, as John Hughes wrote and produced those pictures and set most of his universe in the Chicagoland area. The 1989 madness of Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation shows Clark shopping in the famous Water Tower Court mall, and is set in an unnamed Chicago suburb, which oddly, could pass as an early version of the Krank’s neighborhood. More recently, 2007’s Fred Claus has noticeable Chicago landmarks, as the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue is clearly recognizable. In 2018’s The Christmas Chronicles, Kurt Russel’s Santa and his reindeer fly around the Hancock building and land on Michigan Avenue. Even in the Steve Martin and John Candy heavy hitter from 1987, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, as the two take the long way home, Martin’s character is ultimately trying to get back to his family in Chicago.
Magic is real, and no matter where you find it, it needs to be held onto and looked at again, from time to time. I know how easy it is to dismiss that as dramatic hyperbole, or unrelatable words from someone fortunate enough to have a childhood worth remembering. But cynicism is the antithesis of nostalgia, and if we let it, it will replace all the simplicity we ever knew. And as we get older it does take more energy to frown than to smile. But I’d be willing to bet that if you are one of those people that doesn’t often think about the simpler times in your life when you felt a bit more weightless, that it’s just because it hasn’t occurred to you to do so. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a familiar place covered in snow to dethaw some of those memories. And as you sit there and watch it on your TV at home, you can say “I’ve been there! I know that place! I was there once!”, and maybe, if you let yourself, you can find your way back again.