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WBBM Newsradio Special: Looking Back At ‘Christmas In Chicago’

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"Chicago Christmas" Book Cover. (WBBM/AP Photo)

“Chicago Christmas” Book Cover. (WBBM/AP Photo)

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UPDATED 12/22/11 1:25 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — The “Chicago Christmas” special series looking back on Christmases past returns to WBBM Newsradio for the 32nd consecutive year.

This year, Jim Benes remembers Christmastime in 2001, 1991, 1951, 1941 and 1931. Please check back as we add more audio throughout the week.

  • LISTEN HERE 1941: A nation at war.
  • LISTEN HERE 1931: Cautious shoppers during the Depression.
  • LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 2001

    For Chicago’s Tuesday Christmas in 2001, a mantle of light snow covered grassy areas in some parts of the Chicago area. Temperatures were cold, ranging from 12 to 22 degrees on Christmas Day.

    Christmas 2001 was a sad one, of course. It had been less than four months since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and U.S. forces were in the process of dethroning the Taliban forces of Afghanistan.

    Americans of all political stripes seemed united – a fact reflected by the red, white and blue ornaments and decorations that marked this particular Christmas.

    Because of the terrorist attacks, the War on Terror, and fears that the economy was slipping into recession, merchants were expecting the 2001 holiday shopping season to be dismal.

    Perhaps it all might best be summed up by the title of one book — Skipping Christmas by John Grisham.

    Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” was the No. 1 hot pop single on the Billboard survey in Christmastime 2001, and anything having to do with Harry Potter was a big seller.

    But the mood of the season was captured best by a cartoon in USAToday. It was labeled “This year’s hot gift,” and it showed a child and a mother hugging.

    LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1991

    In 1991, the forecast for Christmas Day, a Wednesday, was mostly sunny and thawing. That forecast might have applied to the whole world.

    The reason is that on Christmas Day, the red flag with the hammer and sickle came down from over the Kremlin, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and the Cold War was over.

    Meanwhile, Natalie Cole recorded “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” the classic made famous by her father, Nat King Cole, for Christmas 1991. Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” was No. 7 on the Billboard list of top albums.

    Michael Jackson was at the top of the list with “Dangerous.”

    Being homeless or poor was downright dangerous in the fall of 1991. The economy was sour, unemployment was up, and donations to the nation’s charities were down.

    On TV on Christmas Eve, you could have seen the 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, it was hard to miss – it was on nine different times on eight different channels.

    LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1951

    Chicago didn’t merely see a white Christmas in 1951. The scene was more reminiscent of the blizzard we saw this past February.

    The snow began on Friday Dec. 14, and one week later, it was 22 inches deep. The city’s streets were clogged with stalled and abandoned cars.

    Then, on the weekend before Christmas, temperatures plunged to below zero, and strong winds piled up mammoth drifts.

    When Christmas Eve came around, it started to snow again. A total of 8 1/2 inches of additional snow fell, for a total of 33.3 inches since the middle of the month.

    A desperate Fire Department was pleading with people to shovel snow away from fire hydrants. The Police Department ordered all police cars into reserve, but many had burned out clutches, or they hadn’t been equipped with tire changes.

    One of Gene Autry’s biggest hits, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was on the hit parade in 1951. It had been released at Christmastime two years earlier.

    And for most families, the hope was that Santa Claus would bring them a television set for Christmas. Lyon & Healy was selling a 17-inch model for $180, or a console model for $300.

    On TV, you could have watched “I Love Lucy,” “Front Page Detective,” Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como, or “Ahamhl and the Night Visitors.”

    And you wouldn’t have been watching CBS on Channel 2 back then. Until WBBM-TV went on the air in 1953, the CBS affiliation in Chicago was shared by the former WBKB-TV, Channel 4, and WGN-Channel 9.

    LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1941

    Christmas fell on a Thursday in 1941, with cloudy skies, breezy conditions, and temperatures in the mid-30s.

    It came just 18 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had plunged the United States into World War II.

    The bold headline across the top of the Chicago Tribune that morning read, “U.S. may quit Manila.” British forces were preparing to surrender Hong Kong, and Japanese submarines were punishing American shipping off the U.S. West Coast.

    On Christmas Day, 30 gaunt and exhausted seamen finally reached the U.S. shore, nine days after their freighter had been torpedoed.

    Actress Lillian Gish arrived in Chicago by train, and told reporters that the West Coast was in a panic. People were having trouble getting reservations on trains to inland America.

    The International Chiefs of Police group was meeting in Chicago, and its president, Capt. Don Leonard, was telling them it was a bad idea to turn off traffic signals during blackouts. Leonard recommended putting caps on them so they wouldn’t be seen from above.

    On the radio, Glenn Miller had the No. 1 song on the Hit Parade, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”

    LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1931

    Christmas Day fell on a Friday in 1931, and came after a string of days in which the temperature reached the 50s.

    The Chicago Daily News was even reporting the strawberries were blooming and bees were swarming.

    Chicago and the nation, of course, were in the throes of the Great Depression. But downtown retailers were reporting that sales were up, although the amount of revenue taken in was down.

    Shoppers still had the spirit, but they were being circumspect about buying high-priced items.

    What might shoppers have found? Sears was selling broad-cloth shirts for 79 cents apiece, while women’s pajamas were $1.

    Commonwealth Edison stores were selling toy train sets for as low as $3.95, and toy electric ranges that could really cook for $1. A five-tube Philco radio could be had for $36.50.

    And on that radio, you might have heard Kate Smith, singing “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain.”

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