“Travel Diaries: How to Explore From a Distance” is a Darling series focused on exploration and travel virtually from the comfort of your own home. 2020 and COVID-19 changed how we were able to travel, but they also taught us that a spirit of adventure and exploring never ceases.
There’s no place like Chicago for the holidays. With thousands of lights aglow, snow drifting from the sky and the contagious joy of locals across this massive city, Chicago puts on a show during the month of December. No other season makes the city come to life quite like the holidays, creating a magical experience for those touring the streets of the Windy City.
Chicago puts on a show during the month of December.
Today, we’ll explore what makes Chicago so special during the holiday and how you can encounter the wonder from your computer screen by glimpsing Chicago’s city-wide traditions, its extensive movie legacy and the best comfort food for the chilly days ahead.
Christmas Traditions in the Loop
Many of Chicago’s famous and most-frequented Christmas traditions take place throughout the Loop, the central downtown area named for the loop of elevated train lines established in the late 1800s.
Christmas Tree Lighting
The holiday season in Chicago kicks off toward the end of November with the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Millenium Park. This tradition dates back to 1913 when the head of the Municipal Christmas Festival Association proposed the idea for an official city Christmas tree. Since then, visitors flock to this park (where you can also find The Bean!) to watch the tree adorn its sparkling lights for the season. This year will be the 107th celebration of this tradition.
Just a few blocks away from Chicago’s monumental Christmas tree is the Christkindl Market. Inspired by the 16th century Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, the market typically draws more than one million visitors each year with its unique vendors and cozy customs. Here, you can find anything from delicate painted ornaments to schnitzel to hand-poured candles.
This year, the market is entirely virtual. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, you can shop from European-influenced and local Chicago vendors, participate in virtual events and explore fun activities for your children.
The Goodman Theatre
Chicago’s oldest and largest non-profit theater, the Goodman Theatre is one of the most well known places to catch a show. Each year, it draws thousands of spectators for its production of “A Christmas Carol”, a show 40 years into its annual run.
In lieu of producing live shows for the remainder of the 2020 season, the Goodman Theatre is offering its popular performance of “A Christmas Carol” as an audio track for free. Get lost in your imagination by tuning into this high-quality audio adaptation of the transformative story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the four ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve.
Chicago’s Cinematic Legacy
Apparently Hollywood also envisions Chicago as the perfect “home for the holidays” destination. Numerous movies have been filmed or meant to take place in Chicago, such as “Home Alone,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Christmas with the Kranks” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”
My favorite is “While You Were Sleeping”, the story of a Chicago metro worker named Lucy (Sandra Bullock) who falls maddingly in love with Peter, a commuter she services each day. One day, Peter falls onto the train tracks during a robbery and Lucy heroically saves his life.
After accompanying Peter to the hospital, the nurse mistakes Lucy for Peter’s fiancé and introduces Lucy to Peter’s family as his fiancée. What follows is a hilarious and endearing journey as Lucy tries to uphold this facade to Peter’s family, including his dubious brother—that a girl they’ve never met before is in love with their son. “While You Were Sleeping” leaves you with that warm and fuzzy feeling essential to all holiday films and also captures the glowing sights of a Chicago Christmas.
Celebrate the Holidays in Chicago’s Neighborhoods
If you stick to Chicago’s downtown area, you’ll likely miss out on its culturally rich and diverse neighborhoods. Chicago is home to more than 77 neighborhoods with distinct identities and unique origins. This Choose Chicago neighborhood breakdown only scratches the surface of the numerous enclaves within Chicago’s city limits. Venture outside the Loop (maybe even take the CTA Holiday train!) to experience all that Chicago has to offer.
St. Lucia Day in Andersonville
Andersonville, a neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, finds its roots in Swedish culture from those who originally settled there. Each year on Dec. 13, the neighborhood celebrates St. Lucia Day, a Christmas tradition revered in Sweden, Norway and some parts of Finland, in honor of a third century Italian saint named Lucia. During the Festival of Lights, a chosen group of girls (deemed “Lucia Girls”) lead a candle-lit procession down Clark Street as they sing “The Lucia Song.”
Kwanzaa in Hyde Park
Hyde Park, one of Chicago’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, is located on Chicago’s South Side. Hyde Park is home to Africa International House, an educational center that highlights the African diaspora. Each year, the center celebrates Kwanza by hosting a Pre-Kwanzaa marketplace for unique holiday gifts. This year, the center will be putting on an online presentation and gift-making workshops in lieu of an in-person market.
Festivities in Greektown
Just west of the Loop, an area called Greektown was formed after populations of Greek people were displaced there from other parts of Chicago in the 1960s. Along with its authentic Greek restaurants and lively neighborhood of native Greek-speakers, Greektown puts on an exciting Christmas celebration each year, which includes a tree lighting and singing of traditional Greek carols.
Deep Dish Pizza: The Ultimate Comfort Food
Your trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a bite of the city’s most famous food—deep dish pizza. Deep dish pizza is baked in a pan with high edges for a thick, flaky crust and to provide plenty of space for pizza sauce, cheese and other toppings. The history of deep dish pizza dates back to Italian immigrants who moved to Chicago during the late 19th century and early 20th century and brought this new concept of pizza-making with them.
Although many restaurants throughout the city lay claim to the best deep dish, the most notorious battle stands between two restaurants—Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s. One day, you’ll have to decide for yourself in person which restaurant rules, but for now, you can try this Lou Malnati’s copycat recipe to get a taste of Chicago’s beloved cuisine.