December is a magical time to celebrate the holidays in Chicago as the city puts its best foot forward. There are traditions and family-friendly activities aplenty throughout Chicagoland, if you know where to look. The holiday season has something for everyone, and these are the holiday events in Chicago we wouldn’t want to miss!
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12 Best Events to Celebrate Christmas in Chicago
Everything kicks off in mid-November with the annual Chicago Christmas parade. The Wintrust Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is a tree-lighting parade along Michigan Avenue. Grand Marshals Mickey and Minnie Mouse lead characters from Disney World, beautiful floats, and marching bands from along the route.
Once the tree is lit, the rest of the city rolls out the holiday finery. Looking for ways to get into the holiday spirit with the whole family? Here are some of the best holiday events in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.
1. Skating and caroling at Millennium Park
The city’s Christmas tree spends the holiday season dazzling visitors in Millennium Park alongside the McCormick Tribune ice skating rink. Ice skating is free, so you can either bring your own skates or rent them at the rink.
It’s the perfect spot for taking in the Chicago architecture, enjoy live carolers, and visit the iconic “Bean” (officially the Cloud Gate sculpture). When you’re finished, enjoy food and drinks at the café or any of the restaurants on Michigan Avenue. There are so many family-friendly places to eat in Chicago!
Looking for more holiday activities? There’s also an ice-skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park, adjacent to Millennium Park.
2. Lightscape at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Lightscape returns for another year at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The gardens come alive at night with over 750,000 lights decorating the trees and plants along lighted paths.
There are interactive lights, a tunnel of light, and a choir of singing trees. Some of our favorite displays include the luminous Winter Cathedral and a reimagined fire garden.
3. Christkindl Market – Chicago Christmas Market
Having explored multiple German Christmas markets, I can say the ChristkindlMarket in Chicago is about as authentic as it gets. There are stalls filled with ornaments, food, and cuckoo clocks throughout Daley Plaza.
The market includes vendors from all over, including Germany, Nepal, and Poland. Christkindl Market is free, but it can be very crowded on weekends. There are also locations in Wrigleyville and Aurora that are equally popular on weekends.
4. The Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker
The Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker is a true Christmas in Chicago tradition. Families return year after year to see the amazing costumes, performances, and brilliant storytelling.
Over one hundred local children are cast as dancers in the performance, making it a true Chicago production. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has adapted this version set inside the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
5. Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light at The Museum of Science and Industry
Celebrating eighty-one years, the Museum of Science and Industry Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light is one of our favorite family traditions. The museum is decorated with more than 50 trees and displays representing countries and traditions from around the world.
Each year a majestic 45-foot tree is the centerpiece of the exhibit (in the past, there have been Peanuts, Disney, and LEGO-themed trees).
Every half hour snow falls from the ceiling making the museum magical! On the weekends there are dance and music performances from around the world. This is definitely worth a visit during the holidays.
6. Afternoon tea or a holiday lunch in Chicago
There are places to enjoy holiday tea in Chicago, and what better way to celebrate with friends and loved ones than spending a special afternoon together?
Many families enjoy a holiday meal at the famous Walnut Room (a Chicago staple since 1907) inside Macy’s department store. Come here to celebrate a festive day on the town, with their beautiful Christmas tree and holiday windows!
Illumination returns to The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, about 35 minutes southwest of the city. For over a decade, this holiday event brings the Arboretum to life each night from mid-November through the first week of January.
Trees and plants are transformed with thousands of interactive dazzling LED lights. You’ll wander along a mile-long trail, while music from the Chicago Symphony provides the accompaniment. A favorite display is the Arboretum’s Grand Garden, leading to a spectacular laser-light finale.
Some nights feature live musical performances. Fire pits and warming tents along the way help keep visitors toasty on cold December evenings. Purchase tickets online before heading out.
8. Holiday Shows in Chicago
There are several live performances throughout the city during the holiday season, but these are a couple of our favorites. You can’t go wrong with any of these productions!
See A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre for a family-friendly rendition of this holiday classic. Or take the kids to see the new Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical showing this season at the Cadillac Palace in the heart of Chicago’s theatre district.
For a special treat, the Music Box Theatre screens the “Sound of Music” with subtitles so the audience can sing along! There’s also a costume contest and a vocal warm-up led by the house organist. It’s fun for all ages.
And “It’s A Wonderful Life” is performed as a “live” 1940s radio broadcast, at the American Blues Theater. It comes complete with commercials, holiday carols, and telegrams from the audience read live on stage.
This is a truly interactive experience, and the audience is even invited to enjoy milk and cookies with the cast after the show. It is a unique production that shouldn’t be missed this holiday season.
9. Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic or Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights
There are two main zoos in Chicago where families can see amazing Christmas light displays: the Brookfield Zoo and the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic includes a holiday light show, animal encounters, ice skating, and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Zoo-goers can stroll along paths covered with more than 2 million LED twinkle lights. There’s also a 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights with thousands of colored lights all synchronized to music.
The Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights features light shows, ice carving, animal encounters, ice skating, and visits with Santa Claus.
Lincoln Park Zoo charges $7 for general admission and they offer members-only and sensory-friendly nights. Brookfield Zoo charges admission, but there are discounts available for zoo members and they offer free admission for the military.
The zoo events can be crowded, so it’s best to choose a colder weeknight and dress warmly.
10. See some of the best Christmas lights in Chicago at the Lincolnwood Towers neighborhood
One of my favorite holiday traditions as a kid was piling in the car and driving around to see holiday lights in our neighborhood while the stereo played Christmas music.
The Edgebrook/Sauganash neighborhood essentially covers Pratt Avenue on the north, Edens Expressway on the east, Devon Avenue to the south, and Cicero Avenue on the west. Today, the neighborhood has taken holiday light displays to the next level, creating a neighborhood Christmas light experience like no other!
Grab some hot cocoa, crank up the Christmas music, and ride through the area, checking out the lights. It’s the perfect family event and no one will complain they’re cold.
11. Experience “Light Up the Lake” at Navy Pier
Light Up the Lake, an indoor, temperature-controlled experience returns to Navy Pier for another holiday season. It features large-scale light-sculpture displays with over 600,000 lights, a regulation-size Alpine ice rink, an authentic holiday beer garden, kiddie train rides, Santa’s Village, a gift market, and more.
Light Up the Lake will also offer sit-down dining with holiday-themed eats, signature cocktails, and seasonal brews. Grab-and-go meals and snacks are available too. Don’t miss this fun event!
12. Ride the CTA Holiday Train
A fun holiday tradition has been traveling around the Windy City since the 90s and its back this year: The CTA Holiday Train! Decked out in twinkle lights and festive decoration, this train brings holiday cheer to both commuters and onlookers.
And while you’ll catch the CTA Holiday Train running along different routes throughout the Chicago area from Thanksgiving till Christmas, it’s not your typical train ride. It’s a magical experience that captures the spirit of the season!
As the holiday train winds its way through the city, passengers can enjoy live music, costumed characters, and an appearance by Santa Claus himself.
In fact, visits with Santa this year are back this year! You can find specific dates for each line on the official CTA website. It’s a joyful journey that transforms a routine commute into a festive celebration, making it a must-see attraction for locals and visitors alike.