On our recent long weekend in Chicago, the town was all decked out for Christmas. We’d never been to Union Station before, so we stepped in to see its stunning Great Hall.
I can’t imagine all the work the city has to put in to wrap so many trees with little lights. The trees are lit on street after street in the Loop.
We walked north across the Chicago River for dinner. The buildings along the river were lit in red and green, and terraces were strung with lights.
I live in a small Indiana town that seriously decorates its downtown for Christmas, and it’s charming. But it can’t touch what Chicago has done if for no other reason than its sheer scale.
Come back Christmas Day and I’ll show you photographs of the giant Christmas tree in Millennium Park. It’s stunning!
Canon PowerShot S95
Jimmy Pentax K10D, 35mm f/2 SMC Pentax-FA AL 2017
I photographed our family Christmas celebrations with my Pentax K10D and the 35/2 Pentax FA attached. And overall it didn’t work out. The autofocus chose the wrong thing to focus on about half the time. Given that I was shooting with the flash off, my in-focus patch was always pretty narrow. If the camera didn’t nail focus, my subject was blurry.
I switched to manual focus late in the celebration. My eyes did a much better job of judging focus than the camera did.
But when the camera got focus right, it nailed everything else. Exposure and color were spot on. I shot RAW+JPEG, but I didn’t need to — my edits to the RAW images made them no better than the in-camera JPEGs. That is the way I like it. My stalwart Canon S95 can’t do that.
I didn’t know until the celebrations were all over that auto-ISO mode limits the camera to ISO 100-400. The camera is of ISOs up to 1600 — but, north of ISO 400, only if you hand select them. Kind of frustrating, as higher ISOs would have increased the in-focus patch enough to make probably half of the botched shots work. It would, probably, have also increased the noise in the photographs, but you can’t have everything.
The K10D may not be cut out for everyday duty. My Canon S95 gets focus right every time. Even though most shots are much improved with little quick editing in the RAW editor, I can use its photos straight from the camera if I must. And so the S95 is a better choice for family work.
This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.
The Christmas season begins for my family when we put up our tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But it’s really not trimming the tree itself that does it – it’s that as we string the lights and hang the bulbs, we listen to the traditional Grey family holiday CDs for the first time. So it’s really the music that ushers in the season for us.
And so it was when I was a child. Mom would drag out the big “portable” record player and her short stack of Christmas records and twist the volume knob up high enough that you could hear the music in the front yard. The whole neighborhood knew Christmas had arrived!
Mom favored Christmas music in pop, standards, and jazz styles, and her record stack reflected that. One of her records, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, has been part of the family tradition since it was issued in 1945. My mother’s parents bought it as an album of 78-RPM discs, one song per side. Mom had it as a vinyl Lp, and I of course have it as a CD. You can own it today, too, as it is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, even though a few years ago the knuckleheads at the record company renamed it White Christmas.
But of all of Mom’s Christmas records, I liked those by Johnny Mathis the best. Johnny really gets Christmas, from hopeless sinner to joyful child. I just can’t help but sing along! When the boys and I decorate the tree, I play Johnny Mathis first.
Johnny has recorded many Christmas albums over the years but his first two are the best. His first one, also named Merry Christmas, was released in 1958. It featured lush arrangements by Percy Faith and his orchestra. But Johnny’s 1963 Sounds of Christmas is, for me, the benchmark against which I measure all other Christmas music. Johnny moves seamlessly between bright, bouncy numbers that capture the happiness to which we all aspire during this season, and traditional songs that show the full power of his voice.
Sadly, you haven’t been able to buy this album in its entirety since the 1960s. Capitol Records reissued it in the early 1970s on one of its budget labels, deleting two songs in the process, and only that abridged collection has survived. You can buy it on CD today as Christmas with Johnny Mathis. It is better than nothing.
Yet I yearned for the two deleted songs. When I discovered many years ago that Mom still had her heavily worn 1963 pressing, I recorded it on cassette. Then a couple years ago I digitized those songs into my computer, ripped Christmas with Johnny Mathis in as well, arranged the songs in the original order, and burned my own custom Sounds of Christmas CD. I made a copy for Mom, too.
If you have wished for those missing songs, then I offer them to you here in glorious mono, with all the scratches, pops, and distortion you expect from a record that was played until it was almost worn out. First is what I consider to be the definitive version of The Little Drummer Boy.
By far the best track on the album is Have Reindeer Will Travel. As my mom says, it just isn’t Christmas without the doop-doopee-doos! You’ll know what I mean when you hear the song.
I haven’t sent Christmas cards in years. I feel bad about it. But only a little.
Receiving cards is always a pleasure, but sending them had become a chore. It had become One More Thing To Do at a very busy time of year. On top of working full time and raising my sons, I also always hosted our big family Christmas celebration. Family drove in from points distant and stayed with us, usually for several days. That meant cleaning and decorating, buying gifts, planning meals, and cooking for everyone. It was a lot of work for this single dad, but it was worth it for the joy my family experienced while we were together.
My 2010 holiday season was especially crazy for reasons I no longer remember. At two weeks before Christmas I had not yet found time to buy cards, let alone write in them and send them. And I didn’t know where time was going to come from to make it happen. I chuckle at it now, but I was feeling serious stress about it. I didn’t want to let friends and family down!
If I could make the job take less time, I reasoned, maybe I could still squeeze it in. I decided to try making Christmas postcard with a preprinted message. All I’d have to do is address, stamp, and send them. So I put my camera on a tripod, gathered my sons in front of the tree, made the shot, brought it into my computer, added the caption, and sent the card off to be printed. It took all of 30 minutes. It wasn’t the greatest family photo ever, but it would work well enough. Here it is:
And then the printer screwed them up. Every last one of them came back with the caption cut off. By then it was just days before Christmas and I had no more time to mess with it. Defeated, I got my money back — and sent no cards that year.
The world didn’t end. Christmas was still merry!
And I’ve not mailed a single Christmas card since. If you send me one, I’ll send you a nice note in the new year. Because life has calmed down by then, and I have time.
A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.
My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.
When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.
I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.
My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!
20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.
May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.