Tonight I took Metra home. Not like going-home-from-work home, but going-to-the-house-I-grew-up-in-for-Christmas home. It’s not unusual for me to take Metra back to Itasca; I’m a bonafide weekend regular at Tree Guys. But on Christmas Eve, it’s always a special trip. (My wife has the car and is visiting her family out in Carol Stream tonight; we’ll exchange presents later when we both get back home.) As long as I’ve been alive, most of Itasca comes out for the annual Christmas Eve luminaria, a village-wide tradition hosted by the town’s Lions Club. Throughout the entire community’s residential areas, residents put candles in paper bags along the town’s streets and sidewalks. The luminaria has its roots in the southwestern United States, and somehow found its way to this corner of DuPage County by 1960.
As a young Itascan (and as an only child) lighting my family’s luminaria quickly became one of my roles at Christmas. There was always a bit of a debate as to where to set up the luminaria: right next to the street, as was common before most of the town got curbs and sidewalks, or along the sidewalks but less visible from the street. As I got older – and most certainly this year when I made the 15-minute walk home from the train station – I realized the only correct answer is to put the luminaria along the sidewalk. Cars have their own headlights, after all, and anything that encourages people to get out of their cars and explore the town on foot is a positive anyway. Besides, the tradition states that the luminaria is meant to “light the Christ child’s way home,” and Jesus strikes me as a walker.
But I also realized, beyond the religious aspects of it, the luminaria has a practical purpose as well. In the suburbs, all too often cars are not only seen as a status symbol among the decently-well-off (see the last month of television commercials where rich white people in McMansions buy each other luxury cars as gifts), but also as an indicator of class and caste. People aren’t supposed to walk, bike, or use transit in the suburbs, at least not as a form of “real” transportation. Transit especially is generally seen as the mode of the unwashed masses, with barely-existent buses weaving and winding their way through circuitous routes in the name of coverage and stations without amenities as basic as benches that can seat more than two people in the fear that some weary traveler would actually use a bench to rest.
But, for one night of the year, the luminaria lights Itasca’s sidewalks, providing just a little extra light during one of the darkest times of the year for everyone going on their merry way. It’s a reminder for all of us that, regardless of whether tonight is a night for celebration or just another day in the life, we all have the responsibility to do what we can to lighten the loads of those who travel alongside us through life: friends, family, neighbors, strangers, everyone. Even if all we’re doing is shedding a little extra light on someone’s walk home, it’s on all of us to realize, in the long run, we’re all heading the same direction and we owe it to each other to use the talents we’ve each been blessed with to make someone else’s journey just a little bit easier.
I’ve brought the luminaria tradition to our new home in Forest Park, and next year if you have some extra lunch bags, a few candles, and something to weigh down each bag, I encourage you to light up the night as well. Share your light with those around you every chance you get: if there’s just one person whose holiday season you can make just a little brighter, it’s always worth it.
From The Yard Social Club, Star:Line Chicago, and me personally, riding a lonely Pace #307 bus down Harlem Avenue, here’s wishing you and yours safe travels this holiday season and throughout the coming new year.