Every year, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry hosts a holiday-themed exhibition called “Christmas Around the World.” The tradition began in 1942, when it was then meant to commemorate the efforts of the Allied powers. Today, the exhibit features over 50 unique Christmas trees in a single hall, each one decorated to represent the holiday traditions of a particular ethnic community in the city. In the center of the main rotunda, a 45-foot-tall tree stands as something of a singular attraction, but its presence is hubristic and somewhat out of place. The whole thing is meant to be interpreted as a celebration of multiculturalism.
As a child, I viewed the Christmas exhibition as particularly larger than life. To me, it was almost exotic. The blinking processional of Christmas trees was certainly more captivating than the lunar rover in the museum’s Henry Crown Space Center, or even the blinking miniature sprites that light up the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle. But that was natural, I guess — in that place of all places I was an outsider: a tiny Jewish girl from the suburbs juxtaposed against a 45-foot tree. This holiday business was new to me. In fact, “Christmas Around the World” was perhaps my first real exposure to the diverse and rightly romantic traditions of the Yuletide season.
Up until arriving at Yale, Christmas was not something I understood. I grew up in a household proud of its cultural heritage. Out of a sense of tradition, if not obligation, my family refused to adopt even the most secular manifestations of holiday traditions that were not our own. We were the practitioners of sturdy Jewish winters that gave the Festival of Lights warm and modest acknowledgment; on December 25 itself, there was Chinese food and a movie. Because of this, most things Christmas were foreign to me. I did not see the movie “Elf” until years after its release. That itself seems like a minor data point, but it’s highly emblematic of a childhood in which my parents saw even the most secular iterations of Christmas as corrosive to my nascent sense of selfhood as a Jew. It really did seem like every other 10-year-old in America had seen that movie.
By college I was Kevin Bacon in “Footloose,” ready to break free. “Let’s dance!” It was overwhelming how much Christmas I had missed. I’d missed “Home Alone” and National Lampoon, an animated Grinch and a live-action Grinch. I’d missed dozens and dozens of classic holiday albums: The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Beatles. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir! And that was only the canon: the Directed Studies of Christmas culture. I soon learned there were niche Christmases to satisfy any possible interest, hobby, pastime or pursuit. Jeff Foxworthy hosts a Redneck Christmas special. There are Christmas albums for Republicans and Democrats, Trekkies and Star Wars fans. Harold and Kumar have a holiday movie, as does (excuse me) Sasha Grey.
The culture of Christmas is not cohesive, and I mean that in the most complimentary and envious way. You have no idea how vast the Christmas industrial complex is until you step outside the shtetl of the greater Chicagoland area. What is most miraculous about the holiday is that it encapsulates a hodgepodge of traditions and entertains each one without invalidating the rest.
“Christmas Around the World” opened just yesterday, Nov. 14. I say that’s not early enough. After all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.