Something to Celebrate, in Chicago: Christmastime, Cloud Gate, and a Comical End to 2021

Unseasonably warm, this holiday season didn’t bring snow to Chicago for Christmas. The storm didn’t roll in until I’d headed home to Ohio, and it melted away within a day — this isn’t the Chicago I remember growing up in, blasted with snow and cold winds.

Tourists with and without coats strolled along Michigan Avenue, making last-minute holiday purchases on Christmas Eve. There was still a slight bite in the air, being December in the Midwest, so some visitors wrapped up in scarves and sipped hot chocolate as they strapped skates onto their feet at the Millennium Park ice skating rink.

Handwritten signs informed us that spots on the ice were sold out for the day. It was already evening, so I’d expected as much; I was happy to watch, take photos, and enjoy the festive music.

I have no memory of not being able to at least stand, or slowly and cautiously glide, on the ice – my balance was perfected on roller skates, as a performance-minded child choreographing dancey routines on the cement driveway of my suburban Brookfield home. (My sister’s 5th grade fall, skating on that same driveway, is a story for another day – being on the verge of middle school in the mid-80s is a tough time to suffer a severe break .)

It was entertaining to watch grown adults clutching the side of the rink, ankles buckling as they awkwardly plodded along in ill-fitting skates, loosely laced by uninformed novices (i.e. themselves). The skates were well broken in, having been passed soul-to-soul (and sole-to-sole) all season long. Even in COVID times the general public is willing to share some items.

Kids zipped fearlessly around the rink OR skated more slowly with the aide of a supportive cartoon animal. In either case, the children appeared to be having more fun – they were grinning from ear-to-ear, eyes on the sibling they were chasing, up ahead, and not wanting to make an exit when overhead speakers announced the end of the night’s rink time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend at least a portion of every holiday season, for almost 50 years, in the Chicagoland area. The last decade has invited more trips downtown, which is a treat. I’ve visited historic bars for a frosty holiday ale, greeted zoo animals better suited for the cold than myself, and strolled more than a few times along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile.

This night, as happens every night, the city’s lights reflected on the curved, metallic surface of “The Bean,” more accurately referred to by the artist as Cloud Gate. This time of year it’s the twinkling Christmas tree lights and buildings lit in green and red that dominate the tourists’ interest. I stand for my own selfie with the sculpture to my back, the bright white of the skating rink making my face shine, aglow.

Whatever meaning a visitor ascribes to the hulking structure, it is impressive! It’s also able to withstand the heat of a Chicago summer, the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, and the curious hands of an out-of-town public – there are plenty of security guards for that.

“A network of two large internal rings connects a truss that allowed the sculpture to be assembled and direct the weight to two points at the base. The stainless-steel skin was attached to the internal structure with flexible connectors that allow it to expand and contract in response to the extreme weather conditions in Chicago.”

(Millennium Park Foundation website)


My father was knowledgeable about everything happening in and around Chicago, having worked downtown for 20 years, first at the Merchandise Mart and then Quaker Tower (now called simply 321 North Clark St., with Quaker Oats headquarters having moved out). He regretted never getting into the city to see the sculpture first-hand; I think of him every time I’m in the city. He would have been impressed by this massive piece of art.

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.

Anish Kapoor, Artist, Cloud Gate

On Christmas, visiting with (fully vaccinated, boosted, and COVID-tested) extended family, I learned that my retired uncle worked as a plumber at the Palmer House hotel, in downtown Chicago. I had never been to the world-renowned hotel, except to photograph their elaborate, opulently decorated grand lobby. Just a couple of blocks from The Bean, this is where I’d be resting my head on Christmas night – see future blog post.

With the window cracked, to let in the sounds of the city, I could relax and rest my tired feet after traipsing around downtown, for hours. Looking for a lighthearted break from all that 2021 has brought the world, and ready for a good laugh, I had tickets to see Loveactually?: the unauthorized musical parody (see link, below).

Rowdy humor, colorful language, and . . . . complicated relationships. . . . well, that describes the musical parody and the Christmas-themed romantic comedy it’s based on: Love Actually, starring Hugh Grant, Colin Ferth, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Rowan Atkinson, and Alan Rickman, among many others.

The parody, following the love antics of 8 couples (and supporting characters), was performed by just 6 talented actors. My heart was made lighter, and my laughter could not be suppressed. If you don’t get an opportunity to see the parody. . . . well, just watch the Rom-Com. There’s plenty of humor (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) in those, and we see a sliver of ourselves in one character or another.

After a beautiful post-show Italian dinner, on the L ride back to the hotel, I was still smiling. I couldn’t help myself. I was reminded that I’m just one of the several million who might hop onto the elevated train during the Christmas season. Chicago’s downtown is comprised of all walks of life, and that evening we saw an enormous range of mood, income level, housing status, and mental health.

In celebration of my good fortune I enjoy the Christmas lights, the laughter on the skating rink, my own reflection on the metallic surface of The Bean, the painted ceiling of a Hilton Hotel, tickets to a show, and the rich flavors of mushroom risotto and bruschetta. I’m truly grateful for what 2021 has allowed into my life, so when a stranger turns to me for help I do my best to give what I can, looking him in the eyes.

My greatest blessing? I got to see my family, avoiding a winter storm and safe from COVID-19. Days after my visit to Chicago snow was falling and new, intensified restrictions were being put in place (no visitors) at my mother’s independent senior living community. I’m happy that the workers in her building are keeping our whole family safe; I’m even happier that I got to celebrate Christmas with them.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Millennium Park Ice Skating Rink: https://millenniumparkfoundation.org/

Magnificent Mile: https://www.themagnificentmile.com/

Cloud Gate: https://millenniumparkfoundation.org/art-architecture/cloud-gate/

Merchandise Mart: https://www.themart.com/

Palmer House Hotel: https://www.palmerhousehiltonhotel.com/

Loveactually?: the unauthorized musical parody: https://www.loveactuallyparody.com/

Love Actually (IMDb):https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0314331/

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