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A Labor of Love

Amy Engstrom Clugg is no stranger to Christmas around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). As a child, she would come to the museum with her parents and pose in front of their trees: the Swedish tree, the Irish tree and the Czechoslovakian tree. Now Engstrom Clugg is a parent of two Russian children through adoption.

Engstrom Clugg's children decorate their Russian tree while dressed in traditional Christmas garments.
Engstrom Clugg’s children decorate their Russian tree while dressed in traditional Christmas garments. Photo by Shannon Blum

“When I became a parent through adoption I wanted to come take a picture of my babies in front of the Russian tree and we learned that there wasn’t a Russian tree at the time,” Clugg said.  “Well, I said ‘how can that be?’ and [the museum] said ‘all the trees are done by volunteers and the family that volunteered to do the Russian tree for a long time wasn’t doing it any longer.’ So I said on the spot with my baby in hand, ‘we will do the Russian tree!’ They said ‘you don’t know what you’re getting into, some of these countries have been doing in for sixty years,’ and I said ‘I’m in!’”

She made a promise to her children and to the museum that she would bring the Russian tree to life for them. And 14 years later, her and her family are still doing it.

“Lots of our kids through Families with Adoption have been making the pinecone ornaments and we brought other ornaments from Russian newspapers and from families that have been visiting Russia,” Clugg said. “We are the only tree decorated by little kids which is hilarious if you think about it. When they were babies the whole bottom of the tree was really well decorated and the top was empty, so the daddies would have to wait ’til the kids left to climb the ladder and fix it.”

Clugg plans to continue this tradition with her family and other supporters. She even said she hopes her grandchildren will carry on the tradition.

This year the Museum of Science and Industry decided to have a TV broadcast of the opening day. Children dressed in ethnic wardrobe to participate in the opening celebration.

Clugg’s two children participated in the display of classic holiday dress, honoring their Russian roots. Her daughter Katy, 14, was grinning ear to ear while viewing the opening celebration.

“Every year we come and decorate the tree with other kids from Russia,” Katy Engstrom said.  “This year we had a kid that my mom’s friends with his dad was really interested in Russia so he came and we got to teach him about all of this.”

Katy said she definitely plans on continuing this tradition with her family. She said each year it is a different experience for her and she continues to learn about other cultures and make friends through the process.

“It’s been a big part of my life, for all my life,” Katy Engstrom said. She said she plans to add more ornaments to the tree as the years go on.

Pinecones, nesting dolls and small Russian girl figurines decorate the Russian tree, one of over 50 trees displayed at this exhibit. Wishing ornaments made by children with their Christmas wish messages inside and a giant pinecone once displayed in the then Marshall Field’s Walnut Room tree are also featured. The volunteers even dress is Russian inspired holiday attire to engage in the exhibit and become festive.

And the Engstrom’s tree, along with the others, are just one of the many sights to see in the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Museum of Science Industry’s 73rd annual Christmas around the World and Holiday of Lights exhibits kicked off Nov. 13. This year the exhibit’s theme is centered on Disney correlating with the museum’s temporary exhibit Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives, presented by D23: The Official Disney Fan Club, which runs until Jan. 4 – the same day the holiday exhibits close.

Ride the escalator up to the main floor and immerse yourself into Christmas around the World, which allows visitors to travel to countries and become cultured during the holidays without ever leaving the city of Chicago. Corridors of the museum are lined with Christmas trees, each one specially decorated with ornaments from countries around the world.

Centered in the middle of the rotunda is a grand tree, which stands 45-feet tall, decorated with over 30,000 lights and ornaments in honor of this year’s Disney theme. Hundreds of thousands of people gather yearly to view the exhibit. They can enjoy holiday and Disney inspired music, as well as snow falling every half hour. And during the weekends and select weekdays, there will be performances by various ethnic groups located at the Holiday Stage.

“Christmas around the World and Holiday of Lights started in 1942 as a salute to our Allies during World War II,” said Jeff Buonomo, manager of Special Exhibitions. “At that time it was one lone tree in the Rotunda and would be decorated each night by one of the different Allied countries. And then, 73 years later, it has grown into more than 50 trees and displays, representing cultures and traditions celebrated around the globe.”

The concept planning began in July. Every year the staff has to come up with a theme. Once the theme is decided, the staff has to reach out to all the volunteer groups to start scheduling the trees.

“We really get busy around September,” Buonomo said. “Usually once Labor Day hits we all start to gather. It takes a lot. If you consider all the volunteer groups which is more than 50 for just the trees and displays and each group brings maybe 10 people to come in and decorate. And then MSI’s staff ranging from designers to manufacturers and electricians, on the museum side it probably takes at least 50 people with various skills as well as the hundreds of volunteers.”

Although they make it work, the museum faces a problem with a lack of space. Buonomo said many groups ask to have a tree and are wait listed until space is available for them to be added to the tradition.

“Most of these groups have been with us generation to generation,” Buonomo said. “They kind of past down the tradition and even the ornaments. It’s a labor of love for all these groups.”


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