A Most Unlikely Christmas Movie


When friends bring up their favorite Christmas movies, I never name the ones they mention.

Not for me, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, much as I like them all.

Return with me to the night before Christmas, 1955, the only time I ever spent out with my folks on Christmas Eve. Perhaps then you will understand.

I couldn’t have been more excited.

My folks and I were going to the new movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas; more famous these days as Michael Douglas’s father, or the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I would have my parents to myself. My little brothers (much too small to go) were in the charge of grandparents. More remarkable, we would be eating out, a rare treat for the Stein family, where memories of the Great Depression forever justified frugality, stay-at-home meals, and the second-best of everything else.

I was nine-years-old.

But, of course, the real excitement would continue into the next day — Christmas Day — and all the presents I hoped might come my way. Things like electric trains, rocket ships, and other gifts beyond imagining.

No tree was planted in our two-flat because no religious connection to the day existed there; not Christianity or any other faith. Christmas was simply an occasion for the purpose of showering me (and my brothers) with presents within the limits of our family’s ever-present budget consciousness.

I was well past the belief Santa existed — I understood from whence the loot came: my dad’s departures paid for everything. His work was then vague to me, but his time away vivid to all of us. Milt Stein worked four different jobs in a typical week: his full-time position as a postal supervisor, part-time labor as a bookkeeper for my Uncle Sam’s business; dad’s own small cigarette lighter-repair enterprise which (with my mother’s help) became the object of his after-dinner attention, and one weekend day spent serving as a security guard at some factory or other in the Chicago area.

My Father During His Stint in the Army During WWII

My Father During His Stint in the Army During WWII

Being out with my father was always special. Sometimes, to spend a little more time with him, I’d walk from our place at 5724 N. Talman to the Lincoln and Washtenaw bus stop: the final destination of my father’s journey from work. I’d wait for him to come off the bus in search of an extra five-minutes togetherness walking back. I never felt desperate about this or lonely. Instead I acted without much thought to do what appealed. At nine I was no psychologist.

Once home dad put down the satchel he carried with him, took off his coat and hat, washed up, and sat down to dinner at the kitchen table with mom. I’d then shared him with mom and my brothers; and with the work he removed from the carryall soon after dinner. He laid out the cigarette lighters needing repair on the dining room table, the tools my mom used to fix the most difficult items, the protective tins and cardboard boxes in which he shipped these incendiary devices back to their owners, and the paper trail of invoices intended to produce a little more money for the family.

A rapid completion of the repairs might allow dad to watch TV. We then enjoyed time sitting close to one another on a living room sofa covered in a clear plastic couch-protector designed to make furniture last. I bathed in the warmth of my father’s presence and the glow of the 26″ Muntz TV, one of the few things my parents bought representing any sort of luxury: a behemoth for its time, the largest television screen then available.

Dad would go to bed around 10 PM, and was back up before 5:00 for his 7 AM clock-in at the giant postal facility on Canal Street downtown, repeating the cycle in-perpetuity.

My father survived a heart attack in November of 1958, then three years ahead of us. Some part of me never thought of him or life the same way thereafter. His cardiac nemesis caused me to cherish even more the time we might yet spend together, worried he might be snatched away. But this Christmas Eve would be special and his heart problems were unforeseen. An action movie awaited with swords and spears and bows and arrows and monsters and everything! The treat of restaurant food and the anticipation of the next day’s Christmas haul beckoned!

Ah, the best laid plans …


Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the famous Greek hero who is credited with the idea of using a “Trojan Horse” to achieve the fall of Troy. The tale rendered by the movie is Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s difficult return from the Trojan War to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus on the isle of Ithaca, his kingdom.

Well-fortified with a tasty spaghetti dinner at the restaurant, I readied myself for the movie’s action.

I thrilled at the Cyclops named Polyphemus who Odysseus and his men defeated, the Sirens, and all manner of trial and nemesis he encountered on the way back home. There, Penelope and Telemachus waited for him for 20 years in total — 10 while he fought at Troy and 10 more for his delayed return. Penelope had the additional job of fending off the advances of suitors who wanted her surpassing beauty (and Odysseus’s estate) for their own. The suitors, in fact, lived in Odysseus’s palace, eating his food, drinking his wine, and lusting after his wife, who fashioned excuses to make them wait. The suitors’ incivility is Homer’s comment on what happens when sons are raised without fathers. Their fathers, at Odysseus’s side, fought in the 10-year Trojan War. Some came back, some did not.

My stomach was rumbling a little by the time our hero, disguised as a beggar, revealed himself to his son and enlisted his help to defeat the unwanted, savage house guests. The actual carnage, when Odysseus and Telemachus killed every last man occupying his home, began as my belly full of pasta was turning South. I’ll spare you the gory details of both the final disposition of my meal and the suitors. Neither was pretty.

With My Father in the Albany Park Neighborhood of Chicago

With My Father in the Logan Square Neighborhood of Chicago

I made it to the movie’s end and back home before the inevitable catastrophe, kneeling at the bathroom’s porcelain alter, the most religious position I had assumed in connection with the holiday. The physical event sucked every bit of life out of me. I wished for nothing but to be carried to bed, tucked in, and allowed to sleep off my body’s betrayal.

Sleep I did, in a good enough state of health by morning to enjoy the Christmas gifts. I remember nothing of the presents themselves, only the night before, including the movie and the time with my folks. Christmas 1955 remains the single holiday of my youth, other than generic recollections of July 4th, that stands out in my memory.

As childhood went on I continued to take almost every chance possible to be with my father. Once a week, always on Sunday afternoon, his mother would come to our house and, at dinner’s end, I tagged along as dad drove her back to the apartment she shared with her sister, south of Riverview Park. I couldn’t pass up the dual summer treat of watching the Silver Flash roller coaster as we passed the amusement park on Western Avenue and having my father to myself for the 30-minute drive back home.

Whenever dad and I would take an elevated train ride after his heart attack, catching the Ravenswood rapid transit at its Western Avenue stop, we were never alone: his mortality took the ride with us. Walking up the stairs to the southbound platform, my father stopped at the first landing to take a breather, reaching into his pocket for a nitroglycerin tablet to make sure another cardiac arrest could be forestalled.

On Top of the World with My Dad

On Top of the World with My Dad

Many years passed before I realized that The Odyssey had a personal meaning for me: the homecoming of my father. No, dad never was mistaken for a warrior from Troy. He returned, instead, from whatever adventures he encountered on the road to making a living — a thing that the Great Depression ensured would define him.

Like Odysseus’s son Telemachus I waited for him and kept the faith, as did my mother and little brothers. We knew eventually he would come, if not as soon or as often as we liked. When I needed books for a research project or a book report, he gladly borrowed them from the Downtown library. He often brought a Planter’s Peanut bar with him, too, because he loved peanuts and thought I would. I never did come to like peanuts, but I can tell you I tried hard to enjoy them, as I tried fishing with a bamboo pole (and later with a rod and reel); enough to go out on several frigid Saturday mornings before dawn, bored out of my mind and short of sleep, to do the thing he loved and I hoped in vain to grow to love.

I couldn’t will myself into a fishy rapture, much as I wished to. Does effort alone ever generate passion? Not surprisingly, we both gave up on the project. Still, I am touched by the thought he wanted me to share the thing he enjoyed, even if, in the end, it wasn’t in me. Thankfully, we did share a love of baseball, something that bound us together until death finally took him at the considerable age of 88, almost 42 years after its foreshadowing in the 1958 heart attack.

Christmas for me means (as it does for so many) family and memories. And, very particularly for me, spending time with my dad, even if my stomach was upset, or we watched a very un-Christmas-like movie; or I waited for him on a street corner, or shivered on a lake early in the morning hoping to fall in love with his favorite hobby.

My memory of that long-ago Christmas Eve is now 61-years-old. But at least in my memory, my unsettled insides on December 24, 1955 didn’t make much difference.

In the end, all that mattered was that finally, like Telemachus, I was at home with my dad.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).