Chicago Events to Get You in the Holiday Spirit

Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Navy Pier
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Joffrey Ballet
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Morton Arboretum
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Macy's
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Timmy Samuels/Christkindlmarket
By Jamie Bartosch, Chicago Local Expert

Light displays, parades, festivals and theater fill Chicago's event calendar in November and December, making it a beautiful and fun city to be in during the holidays. Every one of Chicago's famous museums has its own annual holiday exhibit, but the most "Chicago" thing to do is peer in the animated windows of Macy's on State Street (http://www.visitmacysusa.com/visitor-center/macys-state-street) in what used to be the Marshall Fields department store. Afterward, go inside the store to shop, and admire the 45-foot Great Tree while indulging in a chicken pot pie at the famous Walnut Room restaurant. If you want to play outdoors, rent ice skates and take a spin around the outdoor ice rinks at Millennium Park or Maggie Daley Park. If the weather's bad (as it often is), ice skate indoors on the top of the John Hancock building. Those who prefer to stay out of the cold might consider seeing one of Chicago's beloved holiday theater productions, such as Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" (http://www.joffrey.org) or Goodman Theatre's "A Christmas Carol." (http://www.goodmantheatre.org/)Animal lovers will appreciate the elaborate "Zoo Lights" light display set up at the Lincoln Park Zoo (http://www.lpzoo.org), or see more than 60 trees decorated from countries around the world at the Museum of Science & Industry's "Christmas Around the World and Holiday of Light" exhibit (http://www.msichicago.org).

10. Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago

Along Michigan Avenue, from Oak Street to the Chicago River, all the trees are strung with twinkling lights to signal the start of the holiday season. This year's parade is Nov. 18, 2016, and will be followed by fireworks over the Chicago River. Prior to the procession, retailers along the "Magnificent Mile" elaborately decorate their shop windows, which are then rated by a panel of judges from several local arts institutions and businesses, and numerous entertainers regale visitors with live music, dance, comedy, and acrobatics at Pioneer Court (401 N. Michigan Ave.) and along the procession route. Be prepared for crowds – it's common for more than 1 million people to participate.

9. Navy Pier Winter WonderFest
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Navy Pier

Crowds pack Navy Pier for this popular holiday festival. The pier is transformed into a winter wonderland with lights and decorations, and inside, there's an indoor carnival of games, food and rides. Mostly geared toward younger kids, there's everything from bounce houses to a short zip line. Rent skates and glide along the indoor ice rink, where you'll see banners of Chicago Blackhawks stars hanging up, reminding you that you're in a serious sports town. Weather permitting, you can also ride Navy Pier's outdoor ferris wheel. The festival often has long lines, so try to go as early as possible, and on weekdays.

8. Shopping on Michigan Avenue
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago

A two story American Girl Doll store? Or a chic Prada boutique? It's all here and more, along the mile-long shopping strip along Michigan Avenue known as "The Magnificent Mile." In the area between the Chicago River and Oak Street, there are more than 460 stores, three malls, 275 restaurants and 60 hotels. British import Top Shop, two-story Apple and Crate & Barrel stores, and the new Japanese clothing store Uniqlo are among the unique offerings. Dozens of museums and attractions along the way. even a Chicago Sports Museum in the Water Tower Place mall. Not far away, State Street is also a popular shopping area, home to Macy's.

7. Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker"
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Joffrey Ballet

Even if you're not a ballet fan, you'll be wowed - and put into the holiday spirit - by this beautiful ballet. The incredible dancing and eye-grabbing costumes is done on constantly changing, gorgeous sets. And it's all done to Tchaikovsky's famous score, performed live by the renowned Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. There are many different performances of "The Nutcracker" across the Chicago area during the holidays, but none are elaborate as this one. This year's performance will be the world premiere of Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who is promising a "reimagined" show. The Joffrey Ballet is well-known worldwide for having some of the world's top dancers, and its annual production of "The Nutcracker" is a long-running Chicago tradition. Another popular pastime is seeing "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theater, or any other number of holiday-themed shows.

6. Ice skating at Millennium Park
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

If you can dress for the weather, a fun holiday activity, either for families or couples, is to take a spin around the outdoor ice skating rink in in the middle of Chicago's scenic Millennium Park. In the heart of downtown Chicago, on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Madison Streets, is the 200-foot-long, 80-foot wide rink. Admission to the rink is free, and skate rental is $10. Another beautiful downtown ice skating rink is just a bit farther south - the ribbon-shaped skating area at Maggie Daley Park. The high-end Peninsula Hotel also has a SkyRink on the fourth floor, adjacent to its Shanghai Terrace restaurant.

5. Illumination at Morton Arboretum
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Morton Arboretum

It's worth the drive out to the western suburbs to see this awesome and creative holiday lights display in the beautiful arboretum. You won't see Santa or Rudolph, because the arboretum's trees are the stars of this show. Walk along the mile-long forested path, dotted with displays and bonfires. You'll see things like lights dancing among the trees to music from "The Nutcracker," a light show in the lake water, dozens of chandeliers dangling from tall trees, Ornament Hill, an area covered with ornament-sized lights, and many interactive displays. It's very family-friendly, but on warm nights, it can also be very crowded.

4. Caroling at Cloud Gate
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of City of Chicago

The harmonious sound of local choirs ring out every Friday night between Nov. 28 and Dec. 19, 2014, in front of Chicago's iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as "The Bean," in Millennium Park. They'll sing Christmas carols, and will usually ask the audience to sing-a-long. Whether you choose to sing or not, the music will put you in the holiday spirit. As you listen, you can soak up the lit-up city skyline views and check out the groovy visual effects from reflections in the mirrored Bean. If there's extreme cold (as there tends to be in Chicago) the performance times will be shortened. Admission is free.

3. ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

More than 2 million lights, many in animal shapes, cover this lakefront zoo during its annual ZooLights display. Go to the Helen Brach Primate House and have your photo taken with Santa, make holiday crafts, or watch the live ice sculpture carving demonstrations. Kids can ride through the snowy birch forest on the new Lionel train ride, or take a spin on the endangered species carousel (tickets must be purchased for those two rides). The zoo's gift shops are also filled with unique animal-themed items for purchase. Mostly, people go to ZooLights just to walk around and view the animals in the colorful and fun holiday setting.

2. Holiday windows at Macy's State Street
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Macy's

Walk from window to window to peek in Macy's nostalgic holiday display. Each window features a different scene with old-school animated characters, following a holiday story or theme. Expect to see lots of Chicago Cubs-themed displays, since the team won the World Series for the first time in 108 years in November. Afterward, dig in to a chicken pot pie or sip eggnog at the store's legendary restaurant, The Walnut Room. While the lines can be long and the service can be slow, the restaurant's setting is gorgeous, overlooking Macy's Great Tree - an elaborately decorated, 45-foot wonder. Obviously, you can also shop for gifts at Macy's, or have your photo taken with Santa in the scenic Santaland. Decorations and activities dot the winding line to help pass the time with little ones. These traditions all began back when the store was a Marshall Fields department store.

1. Christkindlmarket Chicago
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Timmy Samuels/Christkindlmarket

Shop for Christmas gifts and then clink your beer steins at this popular seasonal German-themed market in the center of downtown Chicago. Pricey but beautiful ornaments and other unique crafts are for sale. It's also a great place to sample German beer, wine and food. The Gluhwein, a spiced German wine, is a perennial favorite as are the potato pancakes and any variety of "wurst" sausages. Modeled after a festival in Nuremberg, Germany, Christkindlmarket also has live music and performances. Take a photo with the crownded Christkind or Santa Claus who wander through the crowd. Be prepared for crowds, cold weather but also lots of fun. New in 2016 is a secondary Christkindlmarket location in west suburban Naperville.