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As I was working on preparations for the upcoming Christmas celebration, my thoughts turned to last year when, for me, Christmas came early.
In December 2009, I received a letter from James Ballowe of Ottawa, who wrote that he had been commissioned by the University of Illinois Press at Urbana to edit an anthology to be titled, “Christmas in Illinois.”
The book was intended to be a cultural index to Illinois, with Christmas holidays as the central subject. He was asked to present stories on how people of all faiths and ethnicities have celebrated or celebrate Christmas – from Cairo to Chicago, beginning with the earliest years to present day.
The book would contain approximately 80,000 words, and his task as editor would be to choose stories, prose and essays from both well-known and unknown writers that represented how people in Illinois celebrated Christmas.
Immediately, several of my stories came to mind. One was told by Henry Luster about how he and his brother, Phil, harvested a large number of turkeys by soaking corn in whiskey.
The second was told by Presley Garner Donaldson, in which he told of "spreeing" with friends and relatives. In the early days, Christmas was celebrated by families getting together, with whisky as a common denominator. This is where the "spreeing" came in.
For my third contribution, I borrowed a tale from neighboring Bond County that was retold in its 1882 history book. It took place in the early days of log cabins and involved one raccoon skin and enough whisky to get several men snockered.
I also contacted Kevin Kaegy of Greenville to see if he had anything to contribute to this work. Mr. Ballowe was thrilled with Kevin’s submission, a letter written by Maj. John B. Reid to his wife and children on Dec. 25, 1863. This would be the only letter published in the work.
After signing the permissions for the stories to appear in this anthology and citing my sources, I promptly forgot about the project. Then, in December 2010, a package arrived in the mail containing a lovely book, titled “Christmas in Illinois.”
With the outward appearance of a Christmas present, the book was bound in a bright red binding. As I opened the book and studied the contents, I found that all three of my stories had been chosen to appear in the 224-page book.
Sprinkled throughout the book are photographs and line drawings highlighting Christmas as celebrated throughout Illinois. One chapter, “Eating Merrily,” contains recipes from around Illinois. The other five chapter headings include “Christmas In Illinois History,” “Living Traditions,” “Songs and Symbols,” “Christmas Outdoors” and “Memories.”
Receiving the attractive book in the mail a few days before Christmas was exciting, and the fact that my stories were chosen by the editor to appear in this work was an early Christmas present.