There are many great holiday traditions in Chicago. In fact, it was so difficult to choose that we decided to make it a baker’s dozen and include 13 great Chicago holiday traditions. We hope you enjoy them, this year and beyond!
Wreathing of the Lions
The lions at the Art Institute of Chicago have been the guardians of the institute since its inaugural year of 1893. They were modeled by Edward Kerneys, widely considered America’s first great animalier, and donated by Clara Jane Ford. These lions can give a glimpse of the season as gear from different local sports teams is put on them at different times of the year. And you’ll know it is holiday season when the wreaths are put on these lions, a tradition that has continued for over a quarter of a century.
For more information: https://www.artic.edu/events/4101/27th-annual-wreathing-of-the-lions
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
This half-century old Chicago tradition lights up Michigan Avenue (as well as the hearts of children and adults alike) every holiday season. Two days of family-friendly activities lead up to the famous tree-lighting parade, which over the years has featured notable figures from everyone like former Hollywood star Betty Grable to Santa Claus himself. Disney characters, fireworks, and musical performances also jazz up the festival. This great local Chicago holiday tradition has become so big that while it can be attended locally, it is also watched internationally by television viewers across the globe.
For more information: https://www.themagnificentmile.com/lights-festival/
The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition in many places, but Chicago hosts many great renditions of this holiday classic. Joffrey Ballet not only has terrific performances, but also offers a Nutcracker Afternoon Tea where you can relax and discuss the classic holiday masterpiece with friends, family, and other patrons : http://joffrey.org/nutcracker.
Ballet Chicago presents The Nutracker at Athenaeum Theatre : https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/980838/1543640400000
The Fox Valley Ballet also presents The Fox Valley Nutcracker : https://foxvalleynutcracker.com/about/.
The House Theatre of Chicago has a wonderfully tasteful modern version of The Nutcracker : http://m.thehousetheatre.com/nutcracker/.
ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
At the end of November, more than 2.5 million twinkling lights go on in the Lincoln Park Zoo. In addition to the lights, there are incredible festivities, such as ice-carving demonstrations, Santa’s Safari, and much more. There are also free rides and free meals offered to kids as ZooLights has free entry. This is a great Chicago holiday tradition fitting for the whole family.
For more information: https://www.lpzoo.org/pressroom/lincoln-park-zoo-announces-24th-annual-zoolights-events-and-activities
The Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park
Skate through the city with the Chicago skyline as your backdrop on this loop that is twice the length of a standard rink. This is the quintessential holiday experience as you can enjoy hot chocolate served near the rink. Admission to the rink is free and ice skate rentals are available onsite for a small fee. (Parking is available at Millennium Lakeside Garages.) This non-traditional ice skating venue has become a great Chicago holiday tradition over the years.
For more information: https://maggiedaleypark.com/things-to-do-see/skating-ribbon/
Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier
This popular Chicago holiday showcase is almost like a big indoor fair. Covering 170,000 square feet, these holiday festivities include carnival rides, huge slides, an indoor skating rink, and much more. This giant indoor playground has been enjoyed by millions over the years. The weather could be bad outside, but the holiday fun still continues inside at this magical event.
For more information: https://navypier.org/event/fifth-third-bank-winter-wonderfest-2018/
Caroling at Cloud Gate
Caroling is a classic holiday tradition and Cloud Gate, also affectionately known by Chicagoans as The Bean, has become a staple of Chicago holiday festivities since Cloud Gate’s dedication in 2006. A variety of talented local choirs and singers perform on various dates throughout the holiday season as the large crowds of people listen on and join in. Whether you are a seasoned singer, music connoisseur, or simply love the holiday spirit, don’t miss out on the fun!
For more information: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/caroling_at_cloudgate.html
City of Chicago Christmas Tree and Lighting
For over a century, the City of Chicago Christmas Lighting has been a great holiday tradition. There are performances by actors, singers, and others at the lighting itself. After the official event, the impressively lit tree can be enjoyed throughout the holiday season at Millennium Park, its home since 2015. Chicago’s official Christmas Tree often had been comprised of many smaller trees, but since 2009 it has been one singular tree chosen through contests or a nomination process. The 2018 tree is a magnificent 60-foot Norway Spruce.
For more information on the City of Chicago Christmas Tree and its Lighting: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/tree0.html
Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
This tradition began with one tree in 1942 and now features over 50 trees highlighting various ways the holiday season is celebrated around the world in different cultures. In the center is an awe-inspiring four-story tree. This is truly a community experience as local volunteers decorate the trees. In addition, there are holiday performances on the weekends for the whole family to enjoy.
For more information: https://www.msichicago.org/explore/whats-here/exhibits/christmas-around-the-world/
Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza
This Chicago holiday tradition dates back to 1996. It is inspired by Chistkindlesmarkt (which dates back to 1545) in Nuremberg, Germany. Christkindlmarket celebrates German holidays traditions through food, drink, and gifts. This is Chicago’s largest open-air Christmas festival and it brings an international flair to Chicago’s holiday season. This is a place many locals choose to do their holiday shopping.
For more information: http://www.christkindlmarket.com/chicago/
New Year’s Eve Fireworks Show at Navy Pier
The annual fireworks show at Navy Pier caps off the holiday festivities. The dazzling fireworks soar over Lake Michigan, creating stunning reflections in the water below and fantastic visuals in the sky above. This wonderful demonstration is easy to enjoy up close and personal. It is very accessible through transportation and parking (https://navypier.org/visit/getting-here/).
It can also be enjoyed by afar as well as the fireworks in the sky can be see from many locations throughout the city.
For more information: https://navypier.org/event/new-years-eve-fireworks-show-presented-miller-lite/
Macy’s State Street Holiday Windows and Tree
It is definitely a holiday tradition to enjoy Macy’s well-decorated holiday windows which have been populated with famous characters in classic scenes every holiday season for over half a century. Then enjoy The Walnut Room, Macy’s famous 7th-floor restaurant which has featured a nearly 50-foot Christmas tree for over a century. This 17,000 square foot restaurant not only offers fine dining, Austrian chandeliers, and imported Circassian wood paneling, but also serves delicious hot chocolate.
For more information: https://chicagoonthecheap.com/macys-state-street-holiday-events/
Drinking Hot Chocolate
Drinking hot chocolate during the holidays is not a uniquely Chicago activity. But Chicago establishments do offer unique hot chocolate specials during the holidays. The Peninsula Chicago offers “Chocolate At The Pen”–a chocolate bar which includes a hot chocolate bar. Mindy’s Hot Chocolate has many wonderful offerings and specials for the holidays. Vosges Haut Chocolat, Bombo Bar, and Cocoa + Co. are just some of the many other great Chicago establishments where locals can enjoy the wonderful holiday tradition of sipping on authentic hot chocolate to warm the body during the cold winter weather.