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Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light
Photograph: JB Spector, Courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

The 12 best things to do during the holidays in Chicago

Experience the holidays in Chicago with beautiful lights, festive theater productions and online events.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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As the year begins to wind down, the city morphs into a magical winter wonderland, thanks to a slew of amazing Chicago Christmas events. While conditions are a bit different this year, that won't stop sparkling displays of Christmas lights in Chicago or festive decorations at local businesses. Sadly, events like Christkindlmarket Chicago and local productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol won't be happening in person this December, but many of these annual festivities will migrate online to host virtual editions. Looking for some Chicago Christmas inspiration? You'll find no shortage of cheer at these seasonal events.

RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Christmas in Chicago

Chicago Christmas events

  • Things to do
  • Markets and fairs
  • Loop

After going virtual in 2020, the iconic German-inspired holiday market at Daley Plaza returns to Chicago this year for just over a month of Christmassy celebrations. Details about specific vendors are still relatively light at the moment, but you can expect stalls stocked with handmade gifts, German food and plenty of hot beverages (including spiced glühwein, though jury's out on whether we'll get to sip from one of the market's famous boot mugs). Similarly, you can expect to see more information about COVID-19 safety protocols in the coming weeks, though organizers have announced that they'll bring back a virtual component to the market. We'll keep you posted about updates, but in the meantime, we're counting down the days until this holiday tradition returns. 

  • Things to do
  • Late openings
  • Lincoln Park

To see one of the largest displays of holiday lights within city limits, you need to head to Lincoln Park Zoo, where the annual ZooLights display strings up millions of LED blubs. While most of the animals will be keeping warm inside, visitors are free to wander through the park, snapping photos of the various displays and taking part in a variety of activities throughout the holiday season.

There a some new features to look forward to this season, including a new light show on the South Lawn and a 18-foot holiday tree outside the newly-renovated Pepper Family Wildlife Center, where red pandas and snow leopards can be found. Guests will also be able to enjoy hot beverages and snacks at stands throughout the park.

Just like last year, a $5 admission fee will be charged throughout most of the week—free admission tickets will be offered on Mondays and Tuesdays. Check out the Lincoln Park Zoo website for information on special ticketed events during ZooLights, including the BrewLights beer festival and a musical tribute to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

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  • Things to do
  • Millennium Park

Every year, Millennium Park is adorned with an epic Christmas tree that remains on display until the beginning of the new year. The larger-than-life attraction is festooned with twinkling lights and crowned with an illuminated star. Spectators can check out the festive tree near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue through Sunday, January 9th.

The annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony will return in-person this year on Friday, November 19 starting at 6pm, featuring special guests and performances ahead of the illumination of the 108th Chicago Christmas Tree.

  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • Suburbs

The Chicago Botanic Garden hosts this annual (and quick to sell out) display of festive lights, giving guests a host of shimmering reasons to visit the forest preserve during the holiday season. Set along a 1.25-mile path, the after-dark experience features a series of installations to explore, including a 110-foot tunnel made up of 100,000 lights and a group of trees festooned in bulbs that "sing" holiday songs.  

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  • Things to do
  • Performances
  • Millennium Park

There's nothing stopping you from showing up in front of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. "The Bean") at any point during the year and belting out your favorite holiday songs, but you can do it with a crowd of like-minded exhibitionists at this annual series of winter concerts and sing-alongs. Previously know as "Caroling at Cloud Gate," this series will be more inclusive of Chicago’s many faith backgrounds, cultures and holiday music traditions, taking place every Friday at 6pm from November 26 through December 17. Song books will be distributed at each event.

  • Things to do
  • Festivals
  • Suburbs

Ready to get into the holiday spirit? After switching to a drive-through format for 2020, the Morton Arboretum's annual holiday light show is returning this year as a mile-long, walk-through spectacle of LED lights and music, featuring a blend of new and returning light displays set amid 50 acres of trees. 

New for 2021 is a special light-up display of "Hallow," one of artist Daniel Popper's large-scale statues featured in the Arboretum's popular "Human+Nature" exhibition, plus a collection of 150 colorful lanterns, an "enchanted gateway" of glowing lights leading to Meadow Lake and a lit-up pasture near the top of the conifer trail, among other first-time features. You'll also find returning favorites like Ornament Hill, Enchanted Hill and the music-filled Symphony Woods. While you make your way through the show, stop to warm up and roast marshmallows at bonfires set along the path, or grab snacks from concessions vendors.

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  • Things to do
  • Festivals

If you're looking for a holiday destination, Amaze Light Festival brings a twinking display, a holiday market and a tubing hill to Rosemont. Situated in Impact Field (the home of the Chicago Dogs), this seasonal attraction features light shows and seven illuminated worlds to explore, plus a variety of separately-ticketed experiences, including visits ot Santa's Workshop and Polar Peak tubing rides. Guests can also fill up on food and hot beverages before visiting a candy shop stocked with festive treats.

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