Lake Michigan’s waterline glows red.
And the city’s sunrise serenader, Chris Christmas, begins to play his guitar as water laps against the shore.
Christmas plays at a different spot along the city’s lakefront nearly every day.
A few weeks ago, a Chicago cop approached him at Foster Beach.
“He asked me to play ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,’” Christmas said. “And we sat there and sang it together. It was cool. I told him, ‘Catch a moment before you go back to this crazy world. You guys are my heroes.’ Then we took a picture and had a laugh.”
On a separate occasion, he played Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” at the request of a Sun-Times reporter.
The Beatles’ classic “Here Comes the Sun” and “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley are also on his playlist.
He described the almost spiritual experience of his endeavor on a recent morning near Belmont Harbor.
“I’m kind of in the twilight. And I might be fiddling around. It’s kind of like I’ll play softly, and as the sun comes up I’ll play louder. And the groove changes as the sunrise comes up,” he said.
“It’s like someone who climbs rocks, and as they get to the top, it’s a different vibe and feeling. I don’t know. I never thought about how to explain it. It’s a feeling and a vibe with nature. It just feels good,” he said.
There’s no tip jar. And not much of an audience beyond joggers and dog walkers.
“It’s not for money. It’s for the love of music and love of sunrise,” said Christmas, who doesn’t have social media accounts and doesn’t post where he’ll be each morning online.
Christmas, 70, rises daily at 4:30 a.m., has a cup of tea and loads his gear into a little pull wagon before driving east from his home in Portage Park.
“Every time I do this, good things happen. Nobody hits me over the head and tries to take my guitar. I either don’t get bothered or get a compliment,” he said.
Dressed in corduroys, a T-shirt and sandals with socks, Christmas said he was inspired to play outside after seeing a video of famed saxophonist Sonny Rollins playing on a bridge in Brooklyn.
He started playing along the lake in 2016, just a few times that summer. The habit became more frequent until this summer, when it just felt so good and right, that he began playing every day. That is, if he doesn’t have a doctor’s appointment and the weather stays dry and above the mid 50s.
“I play until I get tired or until my fingers bleed,” he said, sometimes until around 11 a.m.
Christmas is a musician, an Army veteran who served as a medic and helicopter mechanic, a poet and a former Streetwise vendor who’s experienced homelessness. He’s also a former county hospital worker. Retired now, he spends part of his time teaching chess to kids in Evanston.
He’s in a blues band with friends and plays an occasional farmers market.
Part of his youth was spent on the North Side, part on the South Side. His father was a mail carrier, his mother a hematologist and tax auditor. A graduate of Lindblom Math & Science Academy on the South Side, Christmas earned a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University.
“He’s the embodiment of a free spirit,” said former state Sen. Donne Trotter, a longtime friend. “I heard someone playing the soundtrack of my life while walking my dogs along the lakefront at Montrose one day and was like, ‘Chris?’ And I was surprised but not shocked. He’s always been uniquely himself.”
Jesse Johnson, another longtime pal and fellow musician, said Christmas is a humble guy but an accomplished guitarist who toured with legendary soul singer Donny Hathaway.
“The main thing about him is that he feels the music. Anybody can study it. But he feels it,” said Johnson, a fellow Lindblom grad. “And he’s just a real person. And you don’t find too many people like that, so when you find it, you hang on, and we’ve been hanging for 50 or 60 years now.”
Christmas said his lakeside jam sessions also help mend the part of his soul that aches for people he’s lost, including a son and grandson killed in gun violence.
“My music heals me, and I kind of think if I play it outside, some people might get that blessing, too, as it floats by. And every now and then, people wander over and say, ‘Hey, thank you,’ and I say, ‘I appreciate your appreciation,’” Christmas said.