Saturday, November 30, 2019

Christmas Magic in Woodstock—The Lighting of the Square 2019

Moments after Woodstock Square was lit.

Note—In some ways this is a companion to the memoir story about making street Christmas decorations in 1953 that I posted earlier today.  The same witness at 70.

The Friday after Thanksgiving features the lighting of Woodstock Square for the holidays—always a magical event now in its 37th year that just keeps getting better. 

The same night nearby Crystal Lake, Illinois home of the Murfin Estate also has a major seasonal event—the night-time Christmas Parade with the downtown dazzling with white lights.  When our children were young my wife, Kathy Brady-Murfin like to take them to the parade followed by hot cocoa, a visit to Santa in a hut set up on Williams Street, and free horse drawn carriage or hay rides.

I seldom made either event because I usually worked Friday evenings at the old Crystal Point Mall or later as a gas station and convenience store clerk, my second jobs.  But a few years ago I cut out the Friday nights because I was still working my regular day job and the double hours were beginning to take a toll.  Since then we have made the Woodstock event the kick-off to our Christmas season.  I always loved the Square in any season and between attending the old Congregational Unitarian Church just two blocks away on Dean Street and working for Bob Jackson at Oaktree Capital on Madison Street, I felt more connected to the McHenry County Seat.  We always met friends and folks I knew in the crowd and several were usually in some way involved in the program.

This year Kathy was in Batavia helping to lead an Advent retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Heart of Mary, the religious congregation she works for, and my youngest daughter Maureen Rotter had to work tending the boy she nannies before and after school.  But I was determined to make it to Woodstock even though I am one of the world’s oldest non-drivers.  Luckily, Maureen could drop me off before heading to McHenry for her job.  I sent out a quick Facebook request to see if I could hook up with any friends for a lift home.  If not, I planned to take the 8:48 Metra train to Crystal Lake and hoof it home from there, about a mile and a half stroll.

Maureen deposited me a block from the Square—all car traffic was blocked off—about 5:30.  The whole area was already teaming with crowds, many adorned in Christmas lights or other seasonal wear, bundled against the mid-30’s temperatures.  There were many families with children including many in strollers and babes in arms or in chest carriers.  Teens raced around in small groups laughing.  Elderly couples strolled arm-in-arm.  I walked through the still dark Square Park stopping at the old pump house for a free apple cider doughnut and small cop of hot chocolate—they were doing a brisk business.
I encountered the Woodstock Community Choir caroling around the Square three or four times.

I started my circuit of the perimeter of the Square at Main Street walking in a counter clockwise direction.  No hurry.  I stopped to scope out the windows of the open and buoys shops and took note that the restaurants and bars were all packed.  I first encountered members of the Woodstock Community Choir near the new Ethereal Confections location on Cass Street across from the Old McHenry County Jail with its Eugene V. Debs Historical Marker.

This year instead of singing from risers in the Gazeebo before the lighting ceremony, they were caroling around the Square under the direction of Cassandra Vohs-Demann.  That was good because last year sound problems from being under-miced and howling winds made their performance almost inaudible.  The choir included Tree of Life members Carrie MacDonald, Tom Steffens, and Beth Hoover, who attracted attention with her Christmas tree hat.  I encountered the group three or four times as we moved around the Square.

Beth Hoover sings in the choir in her one-of-a-kind Christmas tree hat.
Next up was a stop at the Old Court House, which has been undergoing major renovation and preservation.  They were featuring a gingerbread house walk with dozens of entries ranging from simple projects by children—one, labeled the Elf House had collapsed as if it had been struck by an earthquake—to very elaborate creations by decorations pros.  

The Old Courthouse Arts Center was open—a very nice gallery for local fine artists and crafts people. I was very happy to see a nice portrait of Bev Ganschow hanging in the hall just outside the gallery.  Bev, a former member of the Congregational Unitarian Church, died last summer at age 80.  She and her husband Cliff saved the Old Courthouse from being razed for a parking lot in 1973 by outbidding the would-be developer by an eye lash.  She opened the Arts Center and brought in other tenants like the Old Jail House Restaurant and the Chester Gould Dick Tracy Museum.  Over the decades the Ganschows were unable to afford all of the necessary upkeep and preservation of the 1854 building and the City of Woodstock took over the building and are investing in restoration in the hopes that a private buyer will ultimately find a use for it. 

I should have snapped a photo of Be Ganschow's portrait outside the Old Courthouse Arts Center, but I take lousy pictures.
I stopped for a glance at the life size nativity scene on the lawn of the Old Court House.  For many years it was displayed in the Square Park, but in the 1980’s a law suit by atheists forced its eviction from public property.  There was a lot of bitter complaining at the time, but after it was put up on the private property of the Old Courthouse the kerfuffle was quickly forgotten, although the Baby Jesus was stolen (and recovered) one year.  Now the City owns the Courthouse but so far there have been no new complaints.  It may be the lawn area is part of the rent for the Arts Center.

When I got to the Opera House there was a long line outside to get into view the Christmas Tree Walk compounded by theater goers coming for the annual production of A Christmas Carrol.  I decided to wait until after the lighting ceremony to visit the popular annual attraction. I stopped to listen to a small brass ensemble playing holiday tunes on the corner and then continued on dropping in for quick visits at Between the Lynes, the cozy and friendly independent book shop and my friend Ken West’s Material Things Artisan Market, a nice consignment shop featuring hand crafted jewelry, decorative pieces, pottery, and ornaments.

I stopped several times to say hello or chat with friends and acquaintances—and sometime total strangers. I encountered the Choir again and then one more time inside the Square.  By that time I had been outside for the better part of an hour so I stopped by the Pour House on Main Street for a warming bourbon neat with a water back.

I got back to the Square just at 7 pm.  The regular lights on the Square had been dimmed.  Only the Gazeebo glowed.  It seemed like every square inch of the park was filled with people and I knew many were watching from the surrounding sidewalks as well.  This year the program got underway promptly and was efficiently abbreviated.  Lengthy remarks by several folks were cut.  The emcee welcomed the crowd and quickly ran through the usual thanks, acknowledgements, and announcements before turning the microphone over to Mayor Dr. Brian Sager, a thirteen year incumbent and former moderate Republican who has announced a run for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly as fiscal conservative Democrat.  But he kept politics out of the program for which everyone was grateful.  Santa Claus and Woodstock Willie, the city’s groundhog mascot were introduced.  Then, as customary, Miss Woodstock Areli Ortiz, and Little Miss Woodstock Charlotte McMahon Thomas joined to throw the giant ceremonial switch.

Instantly the Square came ablaze with dazzling color as the crowd cheered its approval.  This year for the first time every single tree and bush on the square was lit with brilliant red, green, gold, and white lights.  It was spectacular.

Billy Seger and Cassandra Vohs-Demann sang the hell out of Christmas favorites.
After the formal program was over Cassandra Vohs-Demann and Billy Seger backed by a tight rock trio whose name I unfortunately missed, stepped to the microphones. Forgive me if brag and note that Cassandra also is the Music Director at Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Woodstock and Billy is our accompanist.  Folks drifted away and families with small children lined up outside Santa’s Hut but I stood transfixed near the Gazeebo watching them turn in a performance of Holiday Music that would match any Christmas special on television.  I also enthusiastically sang along on most songs.  Luckily the much improved stage sound system drowned out my caterwauling and nobody’s evening was ruined. 

After their set was over, I headed over to the Opera House to see the Christmas Tree Walk, which was busy, but no longer overwhelming.  The trees decorated by local schools, churches, civic and youth organizations were creative and original.  My own personal favorite was Woodstock Pride’s colorful rainbow tree.
The Woodstock Pride entry in the Opera House Christmas Tree walk.
When I left the Opera House I had half an hour before my train, so I stopped by Liquid Blues for another libation.  I had just settled in when I got a call from Cara Dillworth who had seen my Facebook message asking for a ride.  She and my Grandson Joe Gibson had taken their baby Sienna to the Holiday Parade in Crystal Lake.  They offered to drive to Woodstock to pick me up.  Thanks guys!  I met them at the Woodstock train station and they got me home not long after 9 o’clock—just in time to give daughter Maureen’s dog Piper a short walk.

What a wonderful evening. 

Cañon City, Colorado After Thanksgiving 1953—A Murfin Memoir

Dad was Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce which would have been responsible for this sign greeting circa 1950.

Note: This memoir story of a distant place and time has run before. 

It was 1953. My father was the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Cañon City, Colorado.  We rented a big old stone ranch house just outside of town.  Kit Carson was reputed to have signed a treaty with the Utes underneath a massive old cottonwood in the back yard.  Behind the tree was a big screen house and beyond that the barn, assorted sheds and outbuildings, the caretaker’s cottage and the spring house built into the side of hill with its entry way of cut sod.
The day after Thanksgiving the men from town—the merchants, their sons plus some of the teachers from the high school, police and sheriff’s deputies, and even a real cowboy or two from nearby ranches came to build the Christmas street decorations.  
They had two farm wagons drawn by enormous hairy-footed draft horses filled with spruce boughs.  The sharp smell of the sap still running fresh from the cut branches knifed through the crisp air. There was a lot of laughing and shouting and some cussing as the men brought armloads of the boughs into the screen house.
Dad, W.M. Murfin, in Cheyenne about a year after the street decoration project
They wore black and red checked hunting coats, overalls, wool caps with the earflaps down and yellow workman’s boots caked in mud.  My dad stood out—tall, slim and handsome, his gray Stetson on his head, bundled in a maroon corduroy jacket and olive twill trousers from his Army uniform, shoes slick soled and polished.  He pointed this way and that, creating order out of the chaos, sure authority resting lightly on him. He would take his turn with the bundles and the other work, an extra hand where needed.
They strung heavy wire between steel fence posts sledged into the frozen ground by the screen house.  They carefully wound the boughs around the cable twisting bailing wire to hold it in place. They twined the greenery with garlands of silver tinsel off of big reels. They laced strings of multi colored Christmas lights along the length of wire.
Inside the screen house on trestle tables made of rough planks other men made wreaths for the lampposts. Inside each wreath was a celluloid sign with a light bulb inside. Some were green and said Happy Holidays others were red and said Season’s Greetings. 
Even larger wreaths were made to tie to the center of the garlands.  Multi-pointed stars or bells made of canvas and painted with bright red and yellow air craft dope were suspended inside the wreaths and lit from inside with a light bulb. The work went on for hours while the men laughed and smoked and sometimes took pulls from pocket flasks and passed whiskey bottles.
Mom, Ruby Irene  Mills Murfin, around 1950.  She  commanded the kitchen that day.
Meanwhile the wives had taken over the kitchen. Mom built a wood fire in an old range on the screened-in back porch.  Two big enamel pots of coffee—one white and one blue with white speckles—bubbled on the fire. Stacks of heavy tan coffee mugs from the cafe downtown sat on a redwood table. The men would stomp up the back steps knocking the mud from their hoots. They would remove their sap-encrusted gloves, blow on their hands and then wrap them around the mugs steaming with scalding black coffee.
Inside was a flurry of print dresses, clouds of flour, and high pitched chatter. Pies were going into or coming out of the oven. Thick stew simmered in enamel pots that matched the coffeepots on the porch.  Into the stew went potatoes, carrots, turnips and celery, jars of last summer’s home canned tomatoes, huge white lima beans that had soaked in the dish pan over night, and chunks of beef, venison, and the remains of more than one of yesterday’s turkeys. There were corn bread and biscuits, jars of pickled beets.
At noon the men lumbered in and piled the food on enameled tin plates and then took them outside to eat sitting on the fenders of their Buicks, Packards, and Studebakers or the running boards of battered ranch pickup trucks.  When the feast was gulped down, the women took turns over the steaming dishpans, scrubbing until their arms turned pink.
The hand-built street decorations looked a lot like these except illuminated stars and bells hung in the center wreathes and street lamp signs proclaimed Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings.
By mid-afternoon the job was done. The screen house and yard were strewn with trampled spruce twigs and scraps of tinsel.  The garlands were carefully laid out in the wagons that had brought the boughs.  The men got into their cars and trucks. Horns blaring they drove off behind the wagons to string the five blocks of downtown Main Street with the decorations.
Silence descended on the yard with the gray coming of evening.  A boy danced with unimaginable excitement.  Christmas was coming!