Catching the Spirit of the Season
More than a dozen great ways to celebrate the holidays
Lights, Ice Skating and Carriage Rides at Frozemont in Rosemont
Let’s be honest: Scrooge was on to something. There is way too much to do during the holidays, and the kicker is that feeling happy is strictly not optional. The traditional “12 days” of Christmas epitomize the unrealistic expectations: it supposedly takes a dozen days to celebrate the season. Realistically, to survive the holidays nearly requires a 12-step program. Bah humbug indeed.
Well, we have a cure for the holiday crunch. Put aside for at least part of a day your usual duties and experience the holidays in a new way. Stop and smell the mistletoe! Our gift to you this month is a list of activities to make the season truly merry. We’ve included some traditional, expected events and — like wrapped gifts — some surprises.
In keeping with the spirit of the season, a few suggestions are best undertaken with children and others follow the adage that it’s better to give than receive. So take a respite from the stress and business that often accompanies the holidays, and celebrate the wonder and joy of the season.
Let There be Light
“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree,” Joyce Kilmer famously wrote. Poor Joyce would be left positively awestruck seeing the astounding holiday light display at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Fifty acres of trees are transformed into a surreal but tenderly lovely landscape in its annual Illumination Nov. 18 to Jan. 2. More than 350,000 visitors in just three years have walked the one-mile path of blue, purple, green and hot pink lights. Various light shows, accompanied by appropriate music, create powerful thematic sensory experiences.
Illumination is especially popular with children who, in a touching scene, often impulsively hug the trees. “It’s a natural response for them,” says Anamari Dorgan, director of education at the Arboretum. “They get the ‘reward’ of being bathed in the glow of changing colors.”
Returning displays include Tinsel Harmony, featuring innumerable strands of lit “tinsel,” and Meadow Lake Magic, in which tendrils of light ripple across water. New is Treemagination — projections of abstract designs splash across hemlock trees, which seem to breathe. Also new is Fantasy Forest, the grand finale where the hedge garden showcases pencil-thin pillars of light extending skyward and appearing to happily chase one another. The finale took six months of design time to perfect. The LED lights for the entire show take a team of 25 more than a month to install.
A number of other light shows also are exceptional. Even on a gloomy winter day, Brookfield Zoo is full of life and charm. The oldest and largest lights festival in the Chicago area (see page 13), its Holiday Magic in December transforms the grounds into an otherworldly getaway. The zoo is lit with more than one million LED lights.
Held Nov. 25 to Dec. 30, the Festival of Lights at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton features 20,000 twinkling lights, holiday displays and Christmas trees for sale.
The Aurora Festival of Lights is a free, drive-through light display at Phillips Park from Nov. 25 to Dec. 26. It features animated displays, holiday trains, gigantic snowflakes, elves and reindeer. Or check out Naper Lights, featuring a number of holiday-themed figures and lighted trees at Naper Settlement in Naperville.
Take in the Sights in the Big City
Back in the day, before suburbs realized Christmas belonged to them as well, no holiday season was complete without a trip to State Street to see the window displays. Marshall Field’s pioneered the concept in 1897 with its display of the latest Christmas toys. During World War II theme-designed windows that spanned State Street came into vogue.
Sadly, Field’s is gone, but Macy’s upholds the tradition with its classy window display. Be sure to wander up to the Walnut Room on the 7th floor and order a potpie, a treat there since the early 1900s when a millinery department saleswoman made them at home and brought them to work so shoppers would not head home hungry.
Schedule your trip to Chicago on Nov. 19 and take in the annual Tree Lighting Parade at 5:30 p.m., which kicks off the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Or if you go later in the season, head over to Lincoln Park Zoo for its annual Zoolights presentation.
Live It Up in Your Town
Supporting local retailers is never as easy as it is at Christmas time. The shops often offer deals or goodies while the town supplies entertainment enticing for kids of all ages. The more vibrant downtowns up their game in December. The Santa Stroll in La Grange is Dec. 10. After shopping, enjoy one of many restaurants downtown on or near La Grange Road.
Glen Ellyn’s Holiday Walk, this year set for Nov. 25, began in 1975. With help from the Fire Department, Santa lights the tree. Holiday music fills the air and merchants offer refreshments.
Holiday Homecoming in St. Charles is Nov. 25 and 26. Featured are seasonal music, holiday movies, sleigh rides and the annual Electric Christmas Parade. A glitzy parade is also a central attraction in Naperville on Nov. 27 as the city kicks off its holiday season. Following the Little Friends Holiday Parade of Lights, children can visit Santa inside the Santa House on the Riverwalk.
The Magic of Live Music
Christmas music on the radio is fine, but for an uplifting communal experience hear holiday songs live. Try the Christmas Concert performed by accomplished jazz faculty at North Central College in Naperville. The Dec. 9 show at the Fine Arts Center features well-known holiday favorites with a jazz twist.
Or check out the Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza on Dec. 11, also at North Central, featuring song and dance from both the Osmond Brothers and the Lennon Sisters, with music from the Moon River Band.
Or for a more low key but equally meritorious performance, check the calendar of your local high school music department — its orchestra’s and choirs’ heartfelt renditions of familiar holiday tunes will likely surprise you with their virtuosity. Oh, Tannenbaum Christkindlmarket, a German holiday bazaar, has been a popular draw downtown. Christmas trees originated in Germany after all, and German culture seems especially accommodating to the trappings of Christmas. You can still travel to Daley Plaza for the market, but this year the event will also be held at Naper Settlement Nov. 25 through Dec. 24. Its suburban location had been in Oak Brook. The switch to Naperville will allow for more vendors — at least 40 selling traditional gifts and food. As in Chicago, an annual collector’s mug, one unique to Naperville, will be sold.
Dash Through the Snow
Just hear those sleigh bells jingling at St. James Farm in Warrenville — if there is snow. Weather permitting, 20-minute guided sleigh rides are offered December 21 through January 7. Without ample snow, it becomes a wagon ride.
Several retail districts will also be offering carriage rides including Downtown Downers Grove during its Gingerbread Festival Nov. 25 through 27; Lemont during its Hometown Holiday celebration Dec. 3; downtown Hinsdale on Dec. 10 and 13 at Burlington Park; and on each Saturday afternoon during the holiday season in downtown Wheaton.
Dive into Dickens
Charles Dickens may have written A Christmas Carol, but the Goodman Theatre made it into a holiday staple for Chicagoans. It’s likely you or a family member or a friend have seen the production. Since first staged in 1978, more than 1.2 million theatergoers have delighted in the timeless tale of greed and redemption. It runs Nov. 19 to Dec. 31 and for the fourth year is being presented under the sure hand of director Henry Wishcamper.
Those not wanting to venture into the city can catch Overshadowed Theatrical Productions presentation of A Christmas Carol in Medinah from Nov. 25 to Dec. 17; Steel Beam Theatre’s production of The Ultimate Christmas Carol from Nov. 25 through Dec. 30 in St. Charles; or Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol from Dec. 8 through 11 at North Central College in Naperville.
Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace also offers a special production of A Christmas Carol specifically designed for young audiences, which runs from Nov. 16 through Dec. 23.
Top-notch ballet in the suburbs? And suitable for children? You bet. The Nutcracker plays at the Rialto Square Theatre Nov. 27 and at McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage Dec. 17 and 18. The production is choreographed by the highly acclaimed Ken Von Heidecke, founder and director of Chicago Festival Ballet and Von Heidecke’s Dance Center. A rarity, the ballet is accompanied by a full orchestra — the New Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirk Muspratt. “That just adds so much energy to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score,” says Diana Martinez, director of the Arts Center.
Kids will adore the lavish costumes, a Christmas tree that grows, a battle between mice and soldiers, a journey through the land of whirling snowflakes and a joyous visit to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Other enticements for the younger set include the brilliant young dancers in the production and an appearance in the lobby prior to the matinee performances by the mirthful man from the North Pole.
Other productions include Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker Dec. 4 as well as a hip hop version of The Nutcracker on Dec. 9, both at Rosemont Theatre. And this year, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet will feature the debut of award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre from Dec. 10 through 30.
A Very Pleasant Stroll
Geneva is so un-suburban, a village that seems transplanted from the forests of upstate New York. Christmas Walk in Geneva is a walk back in time — you’re no longer in 2016 and its digital frenzies but somewhere in the golden past with its fixed traditions. The festivities start with a lucky young boy or girl presenting the season’s first candy cane — made by the peerless Graham’s Fine Chocolates — to the mayor. The merry parade features 80 bell ringers and 15-ft-tall toy soldiers, who are accompanied by the Geneva High School Drumline. Next Santa Lucia, part of the Swedish branch of the Santa Claus tree, distributes Pepparkakor cookies. Tap the cookie right in the middle with an index finger. Your wish will come true if it comes apart in thirds. If not, well, enjoy the cookie — and the lighting of the 50-ft-tall Great Tree after the arrival of you-know-who. The hefty man in the red suit also does the honors in opening up the delightful Gingerbread House.
The walk is Dec. 2; the village’s Holiday House Tour is that day and the following day. Five grand homes are decorated for the holidays. Among them are an 1898 beauty with a 4th-floor ballroom and an 1893 Queen Anne with a charming Victorian clock. See how the other half lives (the half with time and ingenuity to transform a home into a Christmas palace). Included in the tour are a traditional holiday tea and a booklet on Christmas decorating and entertaining.
Because walking is good for you and Wheaton has a housing stock anything but cookie-cutter, also check out the Wheaton Holiday Housewalk on Nov. 12. Four homes will be decorated for the holidays — both Thanksgiving and Christmas. An 1894 Victorian incorporates salvaged items from Wheaton’s original community school, Longfellow. Step into the original foyer and be transported back to the time of gas lights and a slower Christmas pace. Also featured is a one-of-a-kind home built in 2002 but inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s late 19th-century architectural style. The home has an open, fluid room flow, stained glass accents and the use
of Roman brick.
Other great options for soaking in some holiday ambiance are the Naperville Garden Club’s Cup of Cheer House Walk, Holiday Market and Tea and the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society’s Holiday Housewalk and Market. Now in it’s 56th year, the Cup of Cheer — this year slated for Dec. 1 and 2 — will feature four Naperville homes decked out in their holiday finest. The Infant Welfare housewalk on Dec. 2 and 3 will spotlight five architecturally significant homes in Oak Park and River Forest festively decorated for the season.
Catch a Spot of Tea
At the aforementioned Cup of Cheer House Walk, you will also be treated to tea and receive a collector’s cup and saucer. You can also do a traditional Christmas Tea at Suzette’s in Wheaton from Nov. 25 through Dec. 31, which includes quiche, scones and a variety of sweets and pastries. The Little Traveler in Geneva also offers a traditional multi-course tea on Thursdays and Saturdays, as does Pinecone Cottage Tea House in Downers Grove on Wednesdays through Sundays.
An unusual but definitely worthwhile family event is the LEGO Train Show Dec. 10 and 11 at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. The train show coincides with the holiday brunch with the Grinch Dec. 10 at Cantigny Golf. Feast on a Grinch-themed buffet along with a viewing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Grinch himself will also how up. Skip the $5 parking fee by donating a new, unwrapped toy for the Marine Toys for Tots.
Join the Army
So who are those people ringing the bells for the Salvation Army? It could be you. The requirements are simple — the ability to ring a bell and the willingness to pleasantly say to shoppers “Merry Christmas” and “thank you.” Volunteers can select a time, date and location convenient for them. Just go to www.registertoring.com. No worries either about accessories: a kettle, bell and apron are provided. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. Most shifts are at least two hours and volunteers are encouraged to work four hours. Can’t stand the cold or can’t stand at all? Ring a virtual bell at Online Red Kettle.
Joy to the World — Of Shut-Ins
Caroling door to door is cool, but
it’s also often awkward both for the homeowners and singers. Here’s a suggestion: round up a half-dozen friends, practice a few well-known holiday tunes, buy red stocking hats and perhaps funny red noses or antlers, scrounge up some bells or cymbals, print out the sheet music so no one fumbles for the words under the pressure of performance and, after making arrangements, bring holiday cheer to some nursing home residents. They’ll love it, even if your voices are not in perfect harmony.
One more suggestion: devise a catchy name for your impromptu choir. It gives your group cache and may convince your listeners you’re not new at this. To really make a friendly impression, bring along tins of homemade cookies for residents.
Stop and Reflect
Mindfulness is hot. In our busy, 24/7, digital lives, we are now reminded to pause and just breathe. To slow down and appreciate the moment. Well, at Christmas, appreciate our humble place in the world. Life is a gift. Maybe times are tough and days are stressful. But there is love and peace beyond ourselves, larger than our woes. The good news endures and resonates with greater clarity at Christmas.Edit Module