Two winters ago, having just exited an elevated train in Chicago, I noticed something bright, colourful and flickering in the distance. My eyes were glued on it as it approached. Eventually, I realised that it was the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Holiday Train. As it slowed to a stop, took on passengers and rolled away again, I was mesmerised — not only because Santa himself was waving at me from his sleigh perched on an open-air flatcar but because the whole glowing display was so exuberant. And that sums up Christmas in Chicago — exuberance in motion, impossible to ignore.
That six-car Holiday Train — along with the additional six-car Elves’ Workshop Train, which runs behind it to pick up folks who couldn’t squeeze on with Santa — runs on all CTA train lines (224.1 miles of track) through the holiday season. Its schedule appears on the CTA’s website, as does the schedule for the Holiday Bus, which also carries a live Santa (inside) on various routes through the city.
But in bustling Chicago, Ill., that’s not where the Christmas spirit ends. Here, I proudly offer you a local’s insight on how to do Christmas the Chicago way.
The Brisk Outdoors
After jumping off the CTA holiday ride, make sure to bundle up because you’ll feel the brisk holiday air on your face as you whizz around the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park. It’s free to skate around, and they rent skates. If you crane your neck, you’ll see the 105th Annual Chicago Christmas Tree, just steps away from the rink, as well as the park’s Cloud Gate sculpture, aka “The Bean,” whose mirrored surface could make anyone’s photographs reflecting the imposing wall of skyscrapers across the street look worthy of glossy magazine pages.
Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza draws inspiration from a medieval German village holiday market and is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, offering traditional Old World food, adult and kids’ beverages, and eclectic gifts — all in the shadow of the city’s famous “Picasso” sculpture. And remember, fending off the chill via proper layering is part of the holiday experience in Chicago.
You won’t want to spend all day or night outside no matter what the weather is like, so before or after the market stop by the Macy’s on State Street (just a block away) to commune with pedestrians marvelling at the store’s latest enchanting holiday window displays. If I were you, I’d duck inside Macy’s for a while, too, especially if I had kids with me, so they can get their picture taken with Santa in the appropriately named Santaland on the fifth floor. Another soaring tree — this one a 45-footer — sits in the iconic Walnut Room. Have a meal there or not; you can always just pop your head in to see the Great Tree, a Chicago tradition that began 111 years ago. If you were to decide to eat after all, the Mrs. Hering’s Chicken Pot Pie is a must-try.
By this point, I promise you’ll be so acclimated to the weather that you’ll be itching to get back out into it. When that urge hits you, as the sun begins to set, make your way north from the Loop to stroll through Lincoln Park Zoo — not to see the animals but to see the spectacle known as ZooLights. This large-scale holiday exhibit features a mind-boggling collection of 2.5 million lights fashioned into more than 150 displays, plus ice sculptures, carollers and various other festive activities.
At some point during your stay, think about trading in tree lights for the footlights of one of Chicago’s quintessential holiday shows. You could choose the world-famous Joffrey Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre, with Christopher Wheeldon choreography set amid the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and that “instant-Christmas” soundtrack courtesy of Mr. Tchaikovsky; or the classic, annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre. First staged in 1978, some Chicagoans feel the holiday season hasn’t begun until they’ve seen this show — and 1.5 million theatregoers can’t be wrong. If you prefer something entirely nontraditional, head to Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier for Q Brothers Christmas Carol, a DJ-pounding play featuring Jamaican Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Hip-hop Past, Present and Future.
Shop & Drop
The Magnificent Mile, that famous stretch of Michigan Avenue running from the Chicago River to Oak Street Beach, is packed with high-end shops — from a stunning new Apple store to Burberry and Tiffany & Co. — some occupying valuable street frontage and others stacked high in skyscraping retail meccas. At the north end of the avenue, the historic Water Tower, which survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, is surrounded by a quaint little park full of twinkling holiday lights. There, horse-drawn carriages offer leisurely street-clomping rides (al fresco or covered, depending on the weather), and just steps away, a Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop serves hot cocoa so decadent it might change your life.
If you are still around on New Year’s Eve and want to see colourful Chicago holiday lights on the grandest scale of all, make your way to Navy Pier for the city’s massive fireworks display over the lake — even more exuberance in motion, and once again impossible to ignore.
Top Holiday Events
105th Annual Chicago Christmas Tree and McCormick Tribune Ice Rink.
Millennium Park. Runs; daily November 16 through January 4 (ice rink through March 3, weather permitting).
Macy’s Holiday Window Display, Great Tree and Santaland.
111 N. State St.; runs Daily November 3 through the first week of January (Santaland through December 24).
Daley Plaza; runs Daily from 11 a.m., November 16 through December 24.
The Nutcracker by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre.
50 E. Congress Pkwy.; runs December 1 through December 30.
A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre.
170 N. Dearborn St.; runs November 17 through December 30.
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Author: Michael Austin