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13 (And More!) Things to Do In Chicago For the Holidays

Daniel Hautzinger
Wreathed Lion. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago
Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

The holiday season is upon us, as going into any store and hearing the music will inform you. If you want to make sure that the most wonderful time of the year is truly full of wonder, Chicagoland offers plenty of magical opportunities, from tree lightings to markets to parades. Taking public transportation there? Try to catch a ride on the CTA holiday train or bus.

105th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

November 16, 6:00 pm
Millennium Park’s Wrigley Square, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street

Photo: City of ChicagoPhoto: City of Chicago

It all kicks off tonight, with the lighting of a 60-foot Norway Spruce in Millennium Park Hamilton star Miguel Cervantes emcees an event featuring music, fireworks at 6:30pm, and, of course, Santa. The ice-skating rink at Millennium Park also opens for the season today (through mid-March), and will feature themed, dress-up skate nights most Thursdays. And if you want to get a start on your holiday shopping, check out the Millennium Park Art Market, which takes place November 16-18 from 11:00 am through 7:00 pm and features goods crafted by students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, and After School Matters.

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

November 17
Pioneer Court, 401 N. Michigan Avenue

Photo: The Magnificent Mile/FacebookPhoto: The Magnificent Mile/Facebook

If one tree-lighting ceremony wasn’t enough for you, enjoy another at Pioneer Court outside the Tribune Building on Saturday. The day starts off with live music and holiday activities before an extravagant parade down Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to the Chicago River begins at 5:30 pm. It culminates in another fireworks show over the River at 6:55 pm.

Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light

November 15 through January 6 (closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day)
Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S Lake Shore Drive

Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, ChicagoPhoto: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

It’s trees galore at the Museum of Science and Industry in their beloved annual holiday display of more than 50 trees decorated to represent the holiday traditions of cultures from around the world. Every weekend features ornament-making workshops and performances by the myriad cultural groups represented by the trees.

Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum

November 17 through January 1 (closed on Mondays other than December 31, as well as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day), beginning at 4:30 pm each night
Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL

Photo: Morton ArboretumPhoto: Morton Arboretum

See trees of all kinds – not just evergreens – lit up in nature at the Morton Arboretum west of Chicago. You’ll find dynamic light displays, interactive sculptures that respond to touch, holiday music, and warm drinks along the one-mile walk through the snowy grove.

Note: Tickets are required.

Chicago Thanksgiving Parade

November 22, 8:00 am to 11:00 am
State Street, from Congress Parkway (now Ida B. Wells Drive) to Randolph Street

Photo: Claudia Currie/Thanksgiving Day ParadePhoto: Claudia Currie/Thanksgiving Day Parade

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Thanksgiving had already happened, given all the Christmas-themed events that took place the weekend before that feasting holiday, but don’t worry, there’s still a parade full of floats, balloons, dancers, marching bands, and more to enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

The Wreathing of the Lions and Holiday Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago

November 23, 10:00 am, see museum hours for Thorne Rooms
111 S. Michigan Avenue

Mrs. James Ward Thorne. E-14: English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period, 1840–70 (detail), about 1937. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Photo: Art Institute of ChicagoPhoto: Art Institute of Chicago

Celebrate a fond tradition with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker, a mariachi-style band, and a free cup of hot cocoa as the Art Institute’s iconic lions get their festive wreaths. Then head inside the museum to check out the holiday decorations in the ornate miniature Thorne Rooms.

Caroling at the Bean

Fridays, November 23 through December 14, plus Wednesday, December 12, 6:00 pm
Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

Caroling at the Bean/Cloud Gate. Photo: City of ChicagoPhoto: City of Chicago

Either listen or join in classic Christmas songs in the heart of Chicago as various choral groups lead a round of boisterous caroling. Groups include community choirs as well as professional ensembles like The King’s Singers.

Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland Express

November 23 through January 6 (closed Christmas Day; check website for hours and early closings)
Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL

Chicago Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express trains. Photo: Chicago Botanic GardenPhoto: Chicago Botanic Garden

Watch as model trains navigate through an impressive landscape of plants, Christmas trees, snow, and incredible miniature versions of Chicago landmarks made out of wood, twigs, acorns, and other natural materials. On certain days you can also catch caroling and ice sculpting. Make sure to check back on our website for a behind-the-scenes video on how the exhibition is set up and maintained, in the next couple weeks!

Note: Tickets are required.

Lincoln Park ZooLights

November 23 through January 6
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark Street

Lincoln Park ZooLights. Photo: Lincoln Park ZooPhoto: Lincoln Park Zoo

Enormous themed light displays, holiday shopping and treats, ice sculpture carving, brew nights for adults, live music, photos with Santa, all in beautiful Lincoln Park at the zoo. Visit the website for schedule and details about event nights.

Learn what it takes to plan, set up, and run the extravagant light displays of ZooLights.

Small Business Saturday

November 24
Lincoln Square and Ravenswood

Caroling in Lincoln Square. Photo: Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of CommercePhoto: Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce

Plenty of stores and neighborhoods encourage local shopping on Small Business Saturday with deals and events, but Lincoln Square and Ravenswood also add in holiday festivities such as live ice sculpture carving, caroling, Santa photos, a tree lighting, and hot spiced wine and cider.

Roscoe Village Winterfest

December 1-2
Roscoe Village

Winterfest. Photo: Roscoe Village Chamber of CommercePhoto: Roscoe Village Chamber of Commerce

Follow up one holiday-filled North Side neighborhood jaunt with another the next weekend, at Roscoe Village’s Winterfest. A tree lighting, holiday trolley rides, caroling, Santa and Mrs. Claus, shopping, and drinks draw you to the neighborhood; while you’re there, don’t miss the decorations on nearby houses, which are known for going all-out with their lights.

Lights Along King Drive

December 1, 8, 9, and 15
Martin Luther King Drive (see website for specific locations)

Image: My Block My Hood My CityImage: My Block My Hood My City

Instead of just watching holiday lights turn on, join in the fun of putting them up! My Block My Hood My City is calling for volunteers to decorate Martin Luther King Drive from 51st Street to 87th Street in order to make the South Side thoroughfare shine like Michigan Avenue. The festive atmosphere will be supplemented by cocoa, food, and music. Can’t make it? Donate lights and ladders!

St. Lucia Festival of Lights

December 13
Andersonville along Clark Street, kicks off at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark Street

St. Lucia Festival of LightsSt. Lucia Festival

The Feast of Saint Lucia is an annual Swedish tradition in which a girl clad in a white robe and red sash with a candle-filled wreath on her head leads a procession and song through the winter dark. Andersonville celebrates the holiday with just such a procession, followed by a telling of the Lucia legend, family activities, and special holiday treats.

Holiday Markets

Christkindlmarket. Photo: Timmy Samuels/ChristkindlmarketPhoto: Timmy Samuels/Christkindlmarket

Get all your holiday shopping done (if you haven’t done so already at the above-mentioned Millennium Park Art Market or Lincoln Square/Ravenswood and Roscoe Village holiday fests) at boisterous markets that also offer food and drink. There’s the ever-popular, German-themed Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, Naperville, and Milwaukee (November 16-December 24). Discover locally crafted artistic wares at Bridgeport’s Renegade Craft Fair (December 1-2), handmade crafts at the One of a Kind Show in Merchandise Mart (December 6-9), unique vintage goods at the West Loop’s Randolph Street Market (December 15-16), and tasty foods at the Sauced Night Market Before Xmas in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel (December 6).

Holiday Productions

The Joffrey Ballet's new Nutcracker. Photo: Cheryl Mann/Joffrey BalletPhoto: Cheryl Mann/Joffrey Ballet

There are the classics: the Goodman Theatre’s perennial production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (November 17-December 30), numerous performances of Handel’s Messiah (including one by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, December 20-23), the Joffrey Ballet’s reimagined production of The Nutcracker (December 1-30; be sure to check out our documentary and website about the making of the new production). If you want to take part yourself, try a Dance-Along Nutcracker at the Chicago Cultural Center (December 2), where you can learn basic ballet positions an hour before, or a Do-It-Yourself Messiah at the Harris Theater (December 17-18). For something a bit different, try the inventive Lookingglass Theatre’s music-filled, acrobatic adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.