Christmas in Chicago

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My first year in Chicago, my cue the holidays were coming was the tree lot that materialized overnight across from my building. One night I was fumbling with my keys across from an empty lot and the next morning my face met the usual gust of wintry air, but this time, it was saturated with evergreen. The lot that had been empty not even twelve hours prior was now full of Christmas trees, some already upright, some lying in neat rows on the ground, and some being thrown from the back of a truck. I took big breaths that morning as I walked my block.

For the seventeen Christmases before moving to Chicago, I built a Christmas vocabulary. I had my list of signals to the impending holiday season. In suburban Indianapolis, these signs came in the form of cardboard boxes. My mother’s collection of holiday décor rivals the windows of downtown department stores. Each late November, I’d start to see boxes in the laundry room, brought down from the attic. In her meticulous handwriting they were labeled, “XMAS—WREATHS,” and “XMAS—ORNAMENTS,” and, to give you an idea of the level of décor we’re talking about, “XMAS—BATHROOM.”

Without these boxes I didn’t quite know how to approach Christmas my first year away from home. Sure, there were a few things that carried over. I had my Rat Pack Christmas CD, the manger scene my godfather had given to me on my first Christmas, and I had a couple ornaments. But it took a few years to learn new traditions and indicators. Thankfully, Chicago is a wonderful town in which to celebrate the holidays and a fine place to learn a new holiday language.

That first year, I discovered the Christkindl Market at Daley Plaza.  Made to look like a tiny European village, it is billed as “a traditional German holiday market.” There are performances almost daily, and merchants sell holiday gifts and trinkets, while food vendors fill you with traditional German treats and hot drinks. There is also a smaller German market in Lincoln Square, only running the weekend of December 3rd.

The Lincoln Park Zoo steps up the holiday cheer with Zoo Lights, an annual event where an evening stroll through the zoo is lit by thousands of festive lights. Just like the zoo itself, this is a free event, and a great date. Grab a coffee or hot chocolate, snuggle next to your sweetheart on a bench against the cold air, and try not to fall in love. I dare you. And, after you’ve fallen for one another, you’ll feel less awkward falling in front of or on top of each other. So get yourself to one of the city’s many ice skating rinks, too.

Macy’s department store on State Street (formerly Marshall Fields, of course) takes the attitude “go big or go home” when it comes to their holiday window displays, and the animated robotic figures make for good shopping buddies as you prowl the stores for something your mother doesn’t already have.

The festival of lights on Michigan Avenue shimmers all season, though the big lighting and parade took place before Thanksgiving. Have them light your way as you wander between the various holiday productions in our city. The Goodman, Drury Lane and Metropolis Performing Arts Center have the obligatory A Christmas Carol, while Porchlight Music Theatre has you covered with Miracle on 34th Street. The symphony’s calendar is filled to the top, just how I like my eggnog. The Second City breaks the mold by offering a holiday sketch show, Dysfunctional Holiday Revue. And, if you want something really different, Greenhouse Theatre Center has a production of A Klingon Christmas Carol.

WinterFest at Navy Pier offers lots of holiday activity for the family, including an arrival of Santa by boat. And here I had always been impressed by flying reindeer. I wonder if they’ve trained a few to swim.

I don’t need to tell you, Chicagoans, this list in not exhaustive. But, I am exhausted, and I have pumpkin lattes and mulled wines simmering on my stove top. So start here, and keep going! Feel free to share your own holiday explorations in the comments below.


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Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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