How Illinois celebrates


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December 21, 2010

Generations of Peorians equate Christmas with the city’s annual Santa Claus parade. Others around the state mark the holiday with bird watching expeditions or church services held on shivery mornings before the break of dawn. With his new anthology, “Christmas in Illinois,” Dr. James Ballowe, distinguished professor of English, emeritus, reveals the history behind the many ways Illinoisans celebrate.

Through poems, essays, recipes, and photographs, contributors illuminate hardship, opulence, religion, and commercialism, but each entry exudes in its own way the intangible, indefinable, spirit underpinning the season.

Ballowe includes the work of famous Illinois writers Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mike Royko, as well as lesser-known storytellers. Ballowe, who taught at Bradley for some 36 years, also includes writings from three former students.

“The contributors, like the intended audience, mirror the religious, ethnic, and geographical diversity of Illinois,” said Ballowe. “Christmas is a cultural index to where and how they live or have lived, whether they migrated or were born into the state.” 

For contributors Margorie Abrath Snyder ’67 and Dean Yannias ’66, the most memorable Christmas traditions were established far from the Midwest, but played out in their families’ Chicago-area kitchens. Abrath shares recipes brought to Illinois by her German elders while Yannias describes West Side Christmases celebrated in Greek style – with voluminous, tasty spreads prepared lovingly and consumed voraciously. Channy Lyons ’97 traces her mother’s Christmas Eve candle lighting tradition from New York to Winnetka, Illinois. Thirty years ago, Lyons brought the ritual to Peoria.

A University of Illinois Press publication, Ballowe’s book is the product of conversations with hundreds of people around the state. He found that Christmas is a widely shared custom, but also a prime time to express individuality.

“One way communities define themselves is by the manner in which they observe the season,” said Ballowe.

And everywhere he traveled, he found not only interesting stories about Christmas, but also connections to Bradley University.

“I meet people from all parts of the state who have gone to Bradley or who know someone who has, and it gives me great satisfaction to know that the institution where I spent my professional life is so well respected,” said Ballowe.

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