Festive Events to Kick Off the Holiday Season in Chicago

There won’t be any bah humbugs this December with Chicagoans eager to discover what local festivities the Windy City has in store.

It’s the beginning of December and the holiday season in Chicago is in full swing. With a variety of events for locals and tourists to explore, there won’t be any grinches to spoil this season’s festivities. 

From Millennium Park to Navy Pier, there’s a slew of locations offering memorable holiday experiences to the public at an affordable cost. Here are a few activities for anyone wanting to get into the festive spirit.

Christkindlmarket (50 W. Washington St.)

With impressive turnouts and increasing popularity each year, the Christkindlmarket is open and ready for its 26th season. This authentic holiday attraction is inspired by one of the first 16th-century outdoor markets of its kind — the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, according to the market’s website

The Christkindlmarket in Chicago originally started with only 13 vendors, according to The Phoenix’s interview with Leila Schmidt, manager of the market’s communications and marketing team. Now, it has over 55 international and local vendors providing authentic drinks, food, and handmade gifts. Most of the vendors are cash-only, but several ATM stations are available onsite. 

Christkindlmarket is a European market which opened Nov. 18 and closes on Dec. 24, offering a wide array of vendors. (Austin Hojdar | The Phoenix)

Check out Daley Plaza and enjoy the unique, intercultural shopping experience, home to mouthwatering bites like the gourmet German pretzel or traditional Austrian strudel. The decadent hot chocolate and festive souvenir mugs available for purchase throughout complement the sweet aromas and create a comforting, cheerful atmosphere before walking around.

The market runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 24 and admission is free. The market opens at 11 a.m. everyday, closing at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

More information about vendors and different locations can be found at the Christkindlmarket’s website.

Lincoln Park ZooLights (2200 N. Cannon Drive)

The Lincoln Park ZooLights is a holiday-themed event open from Nov. 19 through Jan 1. This year, the 65-foot ferris wheel returns alongside an extensive colorful light tunnel. 

The lights are on every day from 4:30 to 10 p.m. and tickets cost $5 per person for guests of all ages. Mondays, entry is free with proof of online registration. However, proof of online ticket registration must always be provided.

Sweet treats and special rides like s’mores and the carousel are not included in the regular ticket price, though all entry ticket sales will be donated towards the zoo’s animal care, global conservation efforts, and innovative educational programs according to their website.

Tickets can be found at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s website. 

Art on theMART (222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 470)

From Nov. 19 through Dec. 30, Art on theMART is showing The Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

Entrancing clips and footage from The Joffrey Ballet’s performance are projected twice each night — once at 7:30 p.m. and then again at 8 p.m. Year-round, Art on theMART transforms Chicago’s Merchandise Mart building into a giant canvas and provides art to view in the heart of Chicago’s Riverwalk. 

Cynthia Noble, the executive director of Art on theMART, said in an email to The Phoenix theMART is “thrilled” to bring “The Nutcracker” back for a third year. The glistening holiday lights, pop-up markets and echoing carolers in downtown Chicago creates a holiday atmosphere that has quickly turned theMART into “a new favorite tradition for residents and visitors alike each night,” according to Noble.

For more information, visit Art on theMART’s website.

Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph St.)

“Millennium Park is the centerpiece of Chicago’s holiday traditions,” Ann Hickey, the deputy commissioner of operations for the department of cultural affairs and special events and spokesperson for holiday programming in Millennium Park, wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

A 55-foot Colorado Blue Spruce sits in the park and serves as the city’s official Christmas tree, decorated with more than 60,000 lights in a pattern reminiscent of the Chicago flag, according to Hickey. The Chicago Christmas tree will stay illuminated until Jan. 9, according to Hickey. 

The ice rink in Millennium Park sits below The Bean. (Victor Adegoke | The Phoenix)

Adjacent to the towering spruce is the popular McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, where skating is free if visitors bring their own skates. Otherwise, rentals are $5. The rink will remain open until Mar. 5 depending on the weather and reservations can be made at the park’s website.

There are also interactive Holiday Sing-Alongs at 6 p.m. each Friday until Dec. 16, where individuals can embrace the holiday spirit and sing well-known Christmas carols alongside some of Chicago’s renowned choirs such as The Windy City Gay Chorus and Treble Quire, according to Millennium Park’s website.

Navy Pier’s Light Up The Lake (600 E. Grand Ave.)

Navy Pier’s Light Up The Lake is Chicago’s largest indoor light experience, according to an email from Felicia Bolton, Navy Pier’s director of communications and public relations, wrote to The Phoenix.

Decorated with more than 600,000 lights, the pier radiates the warmth of holiday cheer and is available for friends and family to enjoy together. The Light Up The Lake event is open from Nov. 25 to Jan. 7. and starting prices for tickets are $15 but vary depending on the date. 

A ride on the Centennial Wheel, ice skating, visits with Santa, and access to interactive art and light installations are all activities included with Light Up The Lake ticket purchase, according to Navy Pier’s website

For an additional cost, visitors can change the colors of the tree lights and other nearby décor with just the tap of a magic wand. Guests with wands are invited to look for 30 different magical objects to interact with located throughout the event, Bolton wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

Tickets and more information can be found at the pier’s website.  

Emma Anderson

Emma Anderson