December 2018 events calendar for Chicago

Find the best holiday activities in Chicago, including free things to do, and picks from theater, art and music
Photograph: Neal O'Bryan
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Don't let the snow and cold temperatures keep you inside as winter arrives—you'll be missing out on a long list of things to do in Chicago. Stay toasty throughout December by taking part in the cavalcade of holiday events, sliding across the ice at local skating rinks or sipping hot cocktails at a seasonal pop-up bar. There are also productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol to see, as well as a stacked lineup of New Year's Eve concerts, including Noname, Guided By Voices, Galantis and more. There's no reason to be bored during the final month of the year—load up your calendar with the best things to do in Chicago this December.

RECOMMENDED: Events calendar for Chicago in 2018

Featured events in December 2018

Photograph: Neal O'Bryan
Things to do, Late openings

ZooLights

icon-location-pin Lincoln Park Zoo | Chicago, IL, Lincoln Park
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When the weather gets cold and most of the animals head indoors, Lincoln Park Zoo tranforms into a a field of twinkling bulbs. ZooLights decorates the beloved zoo with themed displays, perfect for a seasonal Instagram. Throughout the month, you'll also find ice-sculpture carvers and carolers joining the fun, as well as hot beverages available for purchase. This year, ZooLights adds several ticketed events, including a Holiday Market (Nov 27), an adults-only night (Nov 29), a live performance of music from A Charlie Brown Christmas (Dec 9) and a Zoo Year's Eve celebration (Dec 31). 

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Shopping, Markets and fairs

Christkindlmarket

icon-location-pin Daley Plaza, Loop
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You haven't experienced the holidays in Chicago until you've stepped inside this giant open-air market inspired by a similar seasonal tradition in Nuremberg, Germany. At Christkindlmarket, guests can shop handcrafted items like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, beer steins and glass ornaments. When hunger strikes, nibble on potato pancakes, hot pretzels, schnitzel and chocolate-covered treats. No trip to Christkindlmarket is complete without a steaming mug of Glühwein, a traditional hot spiced wine. The holiday market has three locations in Daley Plaza, Naperville and Milwaukee, though the outpost in the Loop is its most popular iteration. Check it out November 16 through December 24. Christkindlmarket is open Sunday through Thursday from 11am to 8pm and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 9pm. Look out for special hours on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve (11am–4pm).

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Illumination
Photograph: Courtesy Morton Arboretum
Things to do, Festivals

Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum

icon-location-pin Morton Arboretum, Suburbs
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When the weather gets cold, the trees at Morton Arboretum light up in a sea of color at this popular winter event. Guests at Illumination walk down a one-mile path through the forest, admiring the psychedelic display and seasonal music. New features at this year's edition include tree-like sculpture from artist HYBYCOZO, a tree that changes colors when you hug it and campfires stocked with hot drinks and s'mores.

Gallagher Way
Photograph: Heidi Zeiger Photography
Things to do, Ice skating

Winterland at Gallagher Way

icon-location-pin Gallagher Way, Wrigleyville
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The Cubs may be hibernating for the winter, but Gallagher Way provides some excellent reasons to hang out in Wrigleyville during baseball's off-season. The public square's Winterland event series offers an array of seasonal activities, including an ice skating rink, curling, visits from Santa Claus and free screenings of holiday movies. Guests under the age of 12 can skate on Gallagher Way's rink for free, while older skaters will have to pay $5 to slide around the ice (skate rentals are available for $10). Winterland also features a colorful art installation called "Chimes," which consists of 30 lights and eight speakers that react to the movements of a giant set of wind chimes. Check out the Winterland website for a complete schedule of activities.

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Christmas Around The World and Holidays of Lights at The Museum of Science and Industry
Photograph: J.B. Spector
Things to do, Exhibitions

“Christmas Around the World”

icon-location-pin Museum of Science and Industry | Chicago, IL, Hyde Park
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Every year, the Museum of Science and Industry puts up its 45-foot-tall Grand Tree and surrounds the towering pine with more than 50 trees that represent Chicago's various communities and their respective holiday celebrations. Visitors can admire the 30,000 lights that cover the trees and stick around for the "snow" that falls from the rotunda every 30 minutes. During the weekend, live performances of holiday music fill the room, lending some additional seasonal cheer to your day at the museum.

Bars

Santa Baby Christmas Bar

icon-location-pin Deuce's & the Diamond Club, Wrigleyville
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From the creators of EDM festival Electric Forest comes this immersive Christmas pop-up bar in Wrigleyville. Beyond boasting wall-to-wall holiday decor, the space houses severals bars and experiences like Brat Haus Beer Hall, Santa's Workshop and Rudolph's Elf Dive Bar. Nosh on lumps of coal (puffed rice, marshmallow and chocolate cookie dust) and sip Jingle juice, which is infused with spiced rum, Grand Marnier, amaretto, orange juice, pineapple juice, Sprite and citrus. Though the event is ticketed, Santa Baby will offer free admission on November 21, November 26–28 and December 3–5.

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Things to do, Festivals

Winter WonderFest

icon-location-pin Navy Pier, Festival Hall,
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Too cold outside? Navy Pier brings all of the winter fun indoors, filling its gigantic 170,000-square-foot Festival Hall with an ice skating rink, carnival rides, a tubing hill, seasonal activities and piles of holiday decorations. Bring the kids and avoid the slush for an afternoon or show up on New Year's Eve (when the attraction is open until 8pm) to slide around the fake ice during the final hours of 2018. Anyone under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. 

Things to do, Quirky events

St. Lucia Festival of Lights

icon-location-pin Swedish American Museum, Andersonville
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Andersonville embraces the Swedish tradition of St. Lucia, beginning with a procession down Clark Street at 4:45pm featuring a group of white-robed Lucia Girls who wear crowns topped with candles. The celebration continues at the Swedish American Museum, where guests will learn about the legend of St. Lucia while enjoying traditional Swedish snacks, including pepparkakor ginger cookies.

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MillenniumSkating.venue.jpg
Photograph: Patrick L. Pyszka
Things to do, Ice skating

Ice Skating in Millennium Park

icon-location-pin McCormick Tribune Plaza & Ice Rink, Downtown
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Skate under the Chicago skyline and within eyeshot of the Chicago Christmas Tree at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park. Admission to the rink is free, and you can rent skates for $13–$15. The most popular time to hit the rink is in the evening, so show up earlier if you don't feel like waiting in line for your chance to slide around. Take advantage of free skating lessons on Fridays at 11am and Saturdays and Sunday at 9am. If it seems too warm to skate, call ahead—this rink is open through March 10, weather permitting.

Photograph: courtesy Tom Boi Theatricals
Nightlife, Cabaret and burlesque

The Buttcracker: A Nutcracker Burlesque

icon-location-pin Reggie’s Music Joint, Downtown
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Leave the kiddos at home and enjoy the bite of this burlesque variety show inspired by the classic holiday tale. Choreographed by Darling Shear, this rendition of The Nutcracker is a more sexy affair than the Joffrey Ballet's, complete with magic, sword balancing and fire spinning. If you're looking for risqué seasonal entertainment, the Buttcracker should do the trick.

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Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon
Courtesy Maggie Daley Park
Things to do, Ice skating

Ice Skating at Maggie Daley Park

icon-location-pin Maggie Daley Park | Chicago, IL, Millennium Park
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The Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon looks like a Mario Kart track, but you won't have to worry about dodging banana peels while you glide around the quarter-mile circuit. As you skate around the park's climbing wall and admire skyline views, you'll be able to stop for a cup of hot chocolate. The ribbon stays open through March (weather permitting) and will host a Skate with Santa on Saturday, December 15 from 10am to noon. 

Caroling at Cloud Gate
Photograph: Peter J. Schulz
Things to do, Performances

Caroling at Cloud Gate

icon-location-pin Millennium Park, Chase Promenade, Millennium Park
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Show up in front of Cloud Gate (otherwise known at “The Bean”) to belt out holiday classics at this series of winter concerts and sing-alongs. It's free to attend and it's just a short walk to the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink if you want to go for a quick skate after you sing.

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Amy Schumer
Photograph: Peter Yang
Comedy, Stand-up

Amy Schumer

icon-location-pin Chicago Theatre | Chicago, IL, Loop
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I Feel Pretty star, podcast host and activist Amy Schumer brings comes to the Chicago Theatre for two nights of delightfully dirty stand-up comedy. Schumer recently announced her pregnancy (at the end of an Instagram post encouraging her fans to vote), so some characteristically graphic material about morning sickness and childbearing is pretty much guaranteed.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Bars

Happy's: A Holiday Pop-Up Bar

icon-location-pin Chicago Athletic Assocation, Loop
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Situated on the ground floor of the Chicago Athletic Association, Happy's transforms the hotel's Tank space into a holly, jolly pop-up with cocktails from bar master Paul McGee. Adding to the merriment is a lineup of evening programming that includes karaoke, bingo, holiday music and more. Psst: This is a great pitstop after checking out Christkindlmarket or the Millennium Park ice-skating rink. 

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Photograph: Lyndon French
Bars

Jingle Bell Square

icon-location-pin Lost Lake, Avondale
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Lost Lake always manages to pull off one of the most epic holiday pop-up bars in all of Chicago. The tiki bar gets into the holiday spirit with tinsel, string lights, festive glassware and a menu full of themed cocktails that will leave you giddy like a child on Christmas morning. Executive chef Fred Noinaj offers a roster of holiday snacks to keep you feeling jolly all night long.

Movies, Family and kids

Music Box Christmas Double Feature

icon-location-pin Music Box Theatre, Wrigleyville
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Ring in the holiday cheer with some classic, beloved Christmas films. Follow Jimmy Stewart’s path to redemption in It’s A Wonderful Life or sing along with Bing Crosby in White Christmas during the Music Box’s annual tribute to classic holiday cinema. Arrive early to meet Santa and belt out Christmas carols during the intermission, accompanied by the theater’s organist. You can snag tickets to one movie or both, depending on how much pure holiday cheer you can handle in the span of an afternoon.

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Cirque Dreams Holidaze
Photograph: Cirque Dreams
Theater, Circuses & magic

Cirque Dreams Holidaze

icon-location-pin Chicago Theatre | Chicago, IL, Loop
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Acrobats, illusionists, dancers, jugglers and stilt-walkers take the stage in this kinetic holiday show, which channels European cirque performances and Broadway glitz. Cirque Dreams Holidaze features more than 300 festive cotumes, 20 acts and original music that celebrates important dates throughout the holiday season, presented over through course of a two-hour show.

Jamie Allan
Photograph: Courtesy Harris Theatre
Theater, Circuses & magic

Jamie Allan’s iMagician… It’s Magic Beyond Belief

icon-location-pin Harris Theater, Millennium Park
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Aided by lasers, iPads, holograms and more miraculous modern technology, British illusionist Jamie Allan puts a high-tech spin on classic stunts like levitation and underwater escapes. He calls himself the “Steve Jobs of magic,” so perhaps you can skip the trip to the Genius Bar and have him fix your cracked screen with the power of his mind?

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Brew Year's Eve
Photograph: Courtesy Brew Year's Eve
Things to do

Brew Year's Eve

icon-location-pin Architectural Artifacts, Ravenswood
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Leave the champagne toasts to all of the other parties happening on New Year's Eve—this annual bash is all about the craft brews. You'll find 25 different beers on tap at Brew Year's Eve, including selections from Three Floyds, Goose Island, Half Acre and Hopewell. Plus, you can nosh on tacos from Big Star and, when the clock strikes midnight, enjoy some late-night snacks form the Roaming Hog food truck.

New Year's Eve at Navy Pier
Photograph courtesy of Navy Pier
Things to do

Chicago Resolution Gala

icon-location-pin Navy Pier, Grand Ballroom, Streeterville
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Get a front row seat for the Navy Pier fireworks display at the attractions annual New Year's Eve party, which takes place in the attractions spacious Grand Ballroom. Each ticket to the Chicago Resolution Gala includes access to 30 bars, a bunch of drink tickets to use throughout the evening, food from a fully-stocked buffet (we're talkin' crudites, red pepper dip and flatbreads) and a complimentary midnight toast. Of course, you'll have to figure out how to get home from Navy Pier at the end of the night, but the celebration seems worth the trouble.

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Concerts in December 2018

Greta Van Fleet - 2017
Photographer: Michael Lavine
Music, Rock and indie

Greta Van Fleet

icon-location-pin Aragon, Uptown
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If you're holding out for a Led Zeppelin reunion, you might have to settle for the classic rock-inspired stylings of this Michigan quartet. In case the Jimmy Paige-indebted blues riffs and Robert Plant-inspired yelps didn't give it away, the members of Greta Van Fleet are devoted students of the legendary British rockers. Touring behind its full-length debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, the group will headline three nights at the Aragon Ballroom.

Once Upon a Symphony
Photograph: Todd Rosenberg
Music, Classical and opera

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Merry, Merry Chicago!

icon-location-pin Symphony Center, Loop
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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra decks the halls of Symphony Center and teams up with guest conductor Michael Krajewski, the Young Naperville Singers choir and vocalist Storm Large for an evening of holiday standards, including familiar carols that you can sing along to. Expect a visit from Santa Claus, enjoy some amazing classical music and leave with plenty of Christmas cheer.  

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Photograph: Courtesy International Music Foundation
Music, Classical and opera

Do-It-Yourself Messiah

icon-location-pin Harris Theater, Millennium Park
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Ever since 1976, Chicagoans have gathered to belt out Handel’s classic oratorio (the one with the famous “Hallelujah!” chorus) backed by a volunteer orchestra and professional soloists. You'll need to show up to the event familiar with the score and ready to sing your heart out all evening long, and you might also want to figure out if you're a soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

Cat Power
Photograph: Stefano Giovannini
Music, Rock and indie

Cat Power + Willis Earl Beal

icon-location-pin Thalia Hall | Chicago, IL, Lower West Side
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Chan Marshall has cycled through many personas while performing as Cat Power, including melacholy indie-rocker, Memphis soul-singer and New Age pop diva. On her latest album, Wanderer, Marshall's weathered, powerful voice is at the forefront of sparse piano- and guitar-backed tracks, including a duet with Lana Del Rey and a cover of Rihanna's ballad, “Stay.” Former Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal, best know for distributing flyers in search of friends and singing along to a boombox, opens the show.

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Kurt Vile
Photograph: Courtesy Matador Records
Music, Rock, Pop & Hip-hop

Kurt Vile and the Violators + Jessica Pratt

icon-location-pin Riviera Theatre, Uptown
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Philadelphia troubador Kurt Vile can seemingly take any mundane element of his day-to-day life and turn in into a rousing psychedelic rock ballad. On “Loading Zones,” the lead single from his latest solo album Bottle It In, Vile confronts Philly's complicated parking restrictions with his signature blend of six-string riffs and wry lyrical observations. San Francisco folk singer Jessica Pratt opens the show.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Photograph: CC/Wikimedia Commons/John Walsh
Music, Rock and indie

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

icon-location-pin Allstate Arena, Suburbs
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Holiday prog-rockers Trans-Siberian Orchestra make their annual trip to Rosemont, though you'll have to wait until after Christmas to see this year's seizure-inducing light show set to overwrought versions of seasonal songs. If you're still not tired of hearing the band's inescapable high-octane rendition of "Carol of the Bells," don an ugly sweater and snag a seat at either of TSO's Allstate Arena gigs.

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Greensky Bluegrass
Photograph: Jamie Van Buhler
Music, Folk, country and blues

Greensky Bluegrass

icon-location-pin Riviera Theatre, Uptown
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This Kalamazoo, Michigan quintet puts a progressive spin on traditional bluegrass music, augmenting mandolin and banjo arrangements with trippy light shows. While its music is a far cry from that of the Grateful Dead or Phish, Greensky Bluegrass has found a following among jam band fans thanks to its constantly-changing setlists and extended improvisations during performances. The group takes over the Riviera Theatre for hour nights at the end of the year, joined by the Jeff Austin Band on December 28 and 29, and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades on December 30. On New Year's Eve, it's three straight sets of Greensky Bluegrass with mandolin solos galore.

pitchfork 2018, noname
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Music, Rap, hip-hop and R&B

Noname

icon-location-pin Thalia Hall | Chicago, IL, Lower West Side
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On her latest album, Room 25, Fatimah Warner (better known as Noname) establishes herself as one of contemporary's hip-hop's most skilled lyricists, deftly exploring a transitional period in her life through a stream of poetic stanzas. The Bronzeville native mixes bavado with deeply personal reflection, often packing both sentiments into the span of a few seconds of her jazz-inflected arrangements. After spending much of the year on the road, Noname returns to Chicago for a trio of year-end shows at Thalia Hall, including a New Year's Eve performance.

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Galantis
Photograph: Teddy Wolff
Music, Dance and electronic

Galantis

icon-location-pin Aragon, Uptown
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Even if you don't know them by name, you're probably familiar with the some of the music that Swedish DJ duo Christian Karlsson and Linus Eklöw have been responsible for. As producers, Karlsson helped pen "Toxic" for Britney Spears, while Eklöw had a hand in Charli XCX's hit single "I Love It." Working together as Galantis, the pair has produced some inescapable EDM tracks, including "Runaway (U & I)," "Peanut Butter Jelly" and "No Money." You won't be able to order bottle service, but the Aragon will probably resemble a packed club when Galantis touches down in Chicago for two year-end performances.

Bully
Photograph: Alysse Gafkjen
Music, Rock and indie

Bully

icon-location-pin Empty Bottle, Ukrainian Village
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Distilling the ‘90s grunge sound to its emotionally-charged, dirstortion-drenched core, Alicia Bognanno and her band Bully deliver rock and roll anthems that pack a punch. Tracked live to tape at Steve Albini's famous Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, the band's 2017 record Losing confronts the confusion of uncertain times with screamed refrains and barrages of power chords. If you're looking for a particularly cathartic way to spend the last hours of 2018, this show is just the ticket.

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Guided by Voices
Photograph: Sandlin Gaither
Music, Rock and indie

Guided By Voices

icon-location-pin Bottom Lounge, Downtown
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Stage-kicking, beer-swilling power-pop singer-songwriter Robert Pollard continues to churn out snappy, lyrically obtuse rock at a breakneck pace—Guided By Voices already has a new album (Zeppelin Over China) and pair of EPs planned for release in the first few months of 2019. After celebrating New Year's Eve at the Empty Bottle last year, the Dayton rockers return to Chicago to ring in 2019 at Bottom Lounge. Take a swig to Jose Cuervo and settle in for a sprawling three-hour set that splits the difference between the band's energetic contemporary output and tracks from classic records like Bee Thousand and Do the Collapse.

Mucca Pazza
Photograph: Jason Creps
Music, Rock and indie

Mucca Pazza + Absolutely Not

icon-location-pin Lincoln Hall, Sheffield & DePaul
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Local thirty-some piece marching band Mucca Pazza sends off 2018 with a jovial celebration at Lincoln Hall which should please band geeks and the musically inept, alike. Armed with mismatched uniforms, horns, cellists, guitarists, drummers and enthusiastic cheerleaders, the collective explores everything from Balkan music to big band arrangements while marching in unconventional formations. On New Year's Eve, they'll be joined by local punk rockers Absolutely Not and the Fuzzbox DJs.

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RJD2
Photograph: Nick Fancher
Music, Dance and electronic

RJD2

icon-location-pin Sleeping Village, Avondale
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Ramble Jon Krohn, better known by his stage name RJD2, is a master manipulator of beats and melodies, mixing samples, synths and live instrumentation. His track “A Beautiful Mine” serve as the theme for Mad Men, showcasing his ability to take a few old samples and turn them into something at once familiar and vital. RJD2 headlines Sleeping Village's first New Year's Eve bash, digging into his collection of records and showing off his turntablist chops both before and after the clock strikes midnight.

Theater shows in December 2018

Snowgirls
Photograph: Rick Aguilar
Theater

SnowGirls

icon-location-pin Mary's Attic, Andersonville
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Have you ever watched the movie Showgirls and thought it could use some holiday cheer? Good news, folks: Hell in a Handbag Productions has you covered. With a book by Derek Van Barham and music from Scott Lamberty, Jeff Thomson and David Cerda, Snowgirls is a Christmas-themed musical parody that exposes what really goes on at the North Pole.

Theater

Hellcab

icon-location-pin Raven Theatre, Edgewater
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If you prefer to deck the halls with booze and drunken sexcapades, Will Kern’s Hellcab is just the show for you. Set on Christmas Eve in 1992, the production chronicles one young Chicago cabbie’s very long day. Join Regina Linn and a 15-piece cast as they prod the not-so-merry underbelly of the Christmas in the Windy City.

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Theater

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

icon-location-pin Strawdog Theatre, North Center
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Strawdog Theatre premieres a new adaptation of Eric Kimmel’s classic holiday children’s book. With a script by Mike Daily and original music and lyrics by composer Jacob Combs, the delightful Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins promises something special this season: a fun, family-oriented show that doesn’t involve Christmas.

Comedy, Musical

Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical

icon-location-pin The Den Theatre, Wicker Park
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Does Die Hard count as a Christmas movie? No matter which side of the argument you fall on, you’ll laugh your ass off at Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Musical Parody. After four years at the now-defunct MCL Chicago, the adventures of Bruce McClane and his nemesis Hans Olo are returning in a new, expanded form at Wicker Park’s the Den Theatre.

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The Play That Goes Wrong
Photograph: Jeremy Daniel
Theater

The Play That Goes Wrong

icon-location-pin Oriental Theatre, Loop
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It’s The Murder at Haversham Manor’s opening night, and nothing is going according to plan in this accident-prone play within a play.

Theater

The Winter Wolf

icon-location-pin Otherworld Theatre, Wrigleyville
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In this original holiday fantasy from Otherworld Theatre, a young girl named Cora battles to save her grandfather from the Time’s immensely powerful hunter, the Winter Wolf. Written by Joseph Zettelmaier and directed by Lauren N. Fields at Otherworld’s Alchemist’s Lab in Lakeview, The Winter Wolf gives fantasy and sci-fi fans a holiday show of their own.

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Theo Ubique
Theater, Musicals

The Full Monty

icon-location-pin Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, Evanston
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Looking back, it’s not surprising that composer David Yazbeck was able to make Tootsie into a great stage musical. After all, he’d already done it before with The Full Monty. This intimate production from the storefront musical maestros at Theo Ubique is the first in their new cabaret-style space on the Evanston side of Howard Avenue.

La Ruta
Photograph: Michelle Nolan
Theater

La Ruta

icon-location-pin Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Lincoln Park
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Chicago-based playwright Isaac Gomez makes his Steppenwolf debut with this tale of the women who live, work and too often disappear from the American-owned factories in Juarez, Mexico, along the U.S. border. Sandra Marquez directs an all-female, primarily Latinx cast featuring newly minted Steppenwolf ensemble member Karen Rodriguez.

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Fiddler on the Roof
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Theater, Musicals

Fiddler on the Roof

icon-location-pin Cadillac Palace Theatre, Loop
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This touring version of the 2015 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof is coming to town for a limited three-week engagement. The classic story of Tevye, his daughters and their precarious existence as Jews in turn-of-the-century Russia feels more urgent than ever, though this show never relied on timeliness—not with one of the greatest, catchiest scores in musical history.

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