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The Real Spirit of Christmas

Radio studio decorated in Christmas decor.
The WCSF studio becomes a winter wonderland for six weeks while the station plays holiday music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Credit: WCSF Facebook page.

Don’t call Don Burke Mr. Christmas. He hates it.

Definitely don’t call him Kris Kringle. That won’t fly either.

Just how much disdain does Burke have for these nicknames?

“So much so that he threatened not to work here anymore,” Communication and Media Arts Department Chairperson Brien McHugh said after sticking his head into Burke’s office at Burke’s own request.

Burke finds the nicknames to be presumptuous and conceited. But there must be some title suitable for the man behind WCSF’s Spirit of Christmas.

Burke dedicates six weeks of his year, every year, for the past quarter century to the Spirit of Christmas. Burke takes over the station and turns into both a literal and metaphorical winter wonderland.

“I am in the station every single day, seven days a week, including on Christmas, New Year's, Christmas Eve; Thanksgiving obviously, until it’s over,” Burke said. “There are days I will spend 10 to 12 hours here.”

The Spirit of Christmas was started 30 years ago by Bob Zak. Burke was working in marketing but wanted more in his career. So, he returned to the university to take broadcasting classes, and he found a love for radio.

Fast forward to 1999, when Zak decided to step away from the university, clearing the way for Burke to take over the Spirit of Christmas.

“I don’t think people realize how much of a commitment it is,” Burke said.

He pours his heart and soul into the station during the holiday season.

“At the end of the program when it’s done and I turn it back to the regular station, there’s a big hole,” Burke said. “Because you dedicated so much of your life for six weeks and then it’s gone.”

At its inception, the program ran from Dec. 1 to 26. Now, after numerous expansions, the program takes over 88.7 FM from Thanksgiving to Jan. 2. The best part of that time on air for Burke? Hearing from the listeners.

“I always enjoy getting feedback from the community,” Burke said. “It means so much to them. It’s become generational. People who grew up with it are sharing it with their kids.”

The Spirit of Christmas features arguably the most eclectic catalog of Christmas music not only in the Chicagoland area, but maybe even in the entire country. It was a labor of love that has blossomed over the past 30 years.

“We try to make sure that we hit the ones people expect to hear,” Burke said. “You hear it, but you’re not going to hear it every hour like you might on a top-40 station.”

The catalog spans well over 4,000 songs and is still growing. Burke plans to add new (or, more appropriately, old) songs to the rotation this year, hoping to take listeners back to a simpler time in life.

“Every hour you’re going to hear songs you traditionally hear, you’re going hear different versions of those songs; you’re going to hear songs that you haven’t heard for a long time,” Burke said. “Maybe even songs that only air once or twice a year.”

There is more to Burke than the Christmas season. He is not a Santa-holic. He does not travel to Christmas shops in the summertime or leave a tree up in his house year-round (although he did admittedly, visit Holiday World amusement park in Santa Claus, Indiana this past year).

Burke is a self-proclaimed homebody. He likes the occasional weekend trip and has recently started visiting amusement parks.

But for the next six weeks, Burke’s home is on the fourth floor of Tower Hall inside the WCSF studios. And, as Andy Williams would say, it’s the happiest season of all.

“I am very honored and humbled to be a part of this and to bring this to the community,” Burke said. “It’s an honor to continue this tradition that Bob Zak started and to get the support from the community, students and university.”

As for the nickname, I propose the Spirit of Christmas. But, if I were to ask Burke, I am sure he would tell me Don is just fine.

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