Growing up during the 1930s and '40s in the southern Illinois coal mining town of Herrin, James Ballowe knew he couldn't expect a pile of presents under the Christmas tree.
But his family would feast, relatives would visit and he would receive some gifts that he still remembers today.
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If you goWhat: James Ballowe, editor of "Christmas in Illinois," speaks and signs books
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4
Where: Arboretum Store at Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle
Cost: Arboretum admission is $11 adults, $10 seniors 65 and older, $8 children ages 2-17, free children younger than 2
Info: (630) 968-0074 or mortonarb.org
"We felt as if we were in a special place for just a couple of days, and that was Christmas," he said.
Ballowe, editor of the newly published book "Christmas in Illinois," believes that feeling of specialness is true of everyone, no matter where they live in the state or what their religious/ethnic traditions are.
"It doesn't matter whether you are a Christian, Jew or Muslim ... the Christmas holiday affects us all in a very personal way," he said.
Ballowe, who will speak on his book at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, explores the commonality and diversity that is Christmas through the book's 190 pages.
The author of "A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton," a biography of the founder of the arboretum, Ballowe said he put the new book together at the request of the University of Illinois Press.
Northern, central and southern Illinois each have their own distinctiveness that he has experienced while living in each section of the state for extended periods of time, said Ballowe, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Bradley University in Peoria and now a resident of Ottawa.
"I knew these places, or at least I thought I knew them. But I didn't know them from the perspective of the one thing that is personal to everyone in the state, and that is the Christmas holiday," he said.
Ballowe spent 1½ years collecting and compiling images, stories, memoirs, news reports, poems and recipes that are arranged in sections: Christmas in Illinois history, living traditions, songs and symbols, Christmas outdoors, eating merrily and memories.
Readers learn of Rockford's Julotta service, Peoria's Santa Parade (the first in the nation) and naturalist John James Audubon's 1810 Christmas on the Cache River.
The book contains pieces from such famous Illinois writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko and Carl Sandburg, and the Christmas reminiscences of everyday people little known outside their own communities.
Major John B. Reid of the 130th Illinois Infantry captures Christmas 1863 in a letter written in a camp near the Gulf of Mexico. From the archives of Naper Settlement, Ballowe obtained "Christmas in Naperville," as experienced by Marie Rose Ellis as a child in the early 1900s.
Ellis writes of how she and her Catholic family attended Mass at 5 a.m. Christmas Day. As they left their church, the bells of all the churches in town called people to worship and everyone greeted one another as they passed by. Ballowe calls it a delightful story.
"Everybody greets one another with good cheer no matter what their religions are," he said. "That pretty much capsulates what Christmas is supposed to be about.
"Christmas can be just about anything you want it to be, but it's constant," Ballowe added. "It demands of you a bit more openness."
Our Christmas of goodwill, merriment and gift-giving is a relatively recent development in the United States.
"Christmas seems to have been always with us," Ballowe writes in his introduction, but, in truth, it hasn't at least not as we know it now.
Christmas didn't become a federal holiday until 1870 with a resolution signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. Much of early Protestant America had eschewed Christmas, frowning on the frivolity, drunkenness and rowdiness that frequently accompanied the holiday.
Britain's Queen Victoria deserves much of the credit for winning acceptance for Christmas in her country's former colonies, Ballowe said.
"(She) brought it down to a domestic level, where family became important," he said.
Nineteenth century writers and cartoonists played a role, too. Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and cartoons by Thomas Nast helped establish Santa Claus as a kindly figure acceptable to all. For the Bob Cratchit family in English writer Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Christmas was a joyous celebration despite their hardships.
"That wasn't just a story. It had a tremendous impact on people in the United States," Ballowe said.
Retailers played their role in promoting Christmas, too, though gifts often were simpler than they are now. Handkerchiefs were popular gifts in Springfield 1860, and the Abraham Lincoln family was known to have purchased 11 of them that December for a total of $3.13. Other selections in the book mention receiving oranges as gifts.
"Particularly during the Depression, to get an orange for a child was something really grand because oranges weren't distributed easily and they were very expensive," Ballowe said.
Two writers tell of their experiences in participating in Christmas bird counts. The late May Theilgaard Watts, a naturalist at the Morton Arboretum, writes of the distinctive appearance of plants in winter in "They Wear Snow with a Difference."
Bryan Ogg, research associate at Naper Settlement, provided Ballowe with Marie Rose Ellis' "Christmas in Naperville." The book brought back personal memories as well, Ogg said. A native of central Illinois, He watched Peoria's Santa Parade as a child.
"It's beautiful," he said. "It's a neat book."