As 5 o’clock nears, the crowd in Daley Plaza grows as thick as a North Woods forest. Vendors at the open-air Christkindlmarket tout their wares—Polish pottery, hand-knitted parkas, soaps made with honey—to their captive audience on this night before Thanksgiving. Chicago’s annual Christmas tree lighting is just minutes away, and until then, anyone who was strolling among the dozens of vendors basically gets stuck. TV trucks prep for live shots. A helicopter hovers, its chop drowned out by the crowd’s chatter. Claustrophobia sets in, and I can’t help but think, Why did I want to come here for Thanksgiving?
Then, across the street, the clock on the 568-foot Chicago Temple tolls.
One. Two. The crowd hushes. Three. Four. Hundreds of cell phones reach above the throng, trained on the darkened 55-foot Colorado spruce. Five.
The mayor flips a switch, lighting the vertical strands of red, white and green lights. Cheers roll through the Loop like a summer wave on nearby Lake Michigan. Eventually, I can move as people funnel through the streets in search of dinner.
Tree-lighting in Daley Plaza. Photo Courtesy of the Mayor's Office of Special Events.
I love cooking a Thanksgiving spread. But for the first time, my husband, son and I met my mom, who lives near Cincinnati, for a holiday weekend in Chicago. We snagged a $34 round-trip fare for Mom on Megabus and settled into a two-bed, two-bath River North condo, where we can pad around in our jammies and watch football like we would at home in Iowa. (Except our house isn’t perched 20 floors above the Chicago River.)
On Thanksgiving Day, a bitter wind whips down State Street just in time for the start of the parade. No matter how many times we’ve watched this parade on TV, nothing prepares us for seeing a roughly 50-foot-tall pilgrimized Garfield balloon muscle its way between skyscrapers. Bundled-up crowds clap and wave at the multicultural mishmash: marching bands playing Lady Gaga tunes, dancers moving in Bollywood style, girls doing an Irish jig. I inhale the scent of evergreens laying in the raised beds along State Street, and as Santa wraps up the procession, I realize it’s time for an early dinner.
The Thanksgiving Parade.
We walk three blocks to the Palmer House Hilton, where we have reservations at Lockwood (it books up a month in advance) for our first time eating out on this special day. Any worries about it feeling weird melt away when we walk into Chicago’s oldest hotel. Poinsettias, lit trees and waiters carrying trays of mimosas fill the lobby with warm hospitality, while chefs cook more than 120 turkeys and present lavish dessert buffets. Patrons linger over creamy butternut squash soup, turkey, dressing and sweet potato soufflé. All of it tastes better than anything I’ve made myself.
The breathtaking lobby at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton signals that Thanksgiving dinner will be one to remember.
Drowsiness sets in as we continue our Thanksgiving football-watching tradition, laying around in the condo until darkness falls. Then we bundle up and walk the 11 blocks to the Magnificent Mile. White lights ring the trees along Pearson Street, where patrons holding cups of hot cocoa spill out of Ghiradelli and climb into carriages for rides through the tony Gold Coast. As the horses wind past Chicago’s old limestone water tower, the simple clip-clop of hooves gives the neighborhood’s trendy boutiques a historic veneer.
Carriage rides wind past the Water Tower.
The next morning, we watch as workers climb scaffolding to hang bushy evergreen wreaths around the lions guarding the Art Institute of Chicago. Hundreds of art lovers pack the sidewalk, cameras in hand, to snap the moment, while a gospel choir sings praise on the front steps. Created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the bronze lions stand outside of the South Michigan Avenue entrance. We funnel inside and make our way to the Art Institute’s Ryan Education Center, where families already have settled at tables to make art inspired by the amazing collection.
The Art Institute of Chicago’s south lion.
Mike and Lisa Shydlowski bring their three children to the Wreathing of the Lions every year, carrying on a tradition that started when Mike was a kid and his family decorated their replica lion bookends with wreaths. Today, alongside us, they make tissue paper wreaths patterned after Marc Chagall’s cerulean stained-glass windows and talk about their plans to see the Zoo Lights in Lincoln Park and go ice-skating in Millennium Park. “I didn’t have any of these things growing up in a small town,” Lisa says. “I like getting our kids excited for what they have here. The city has so much to offer.”
We find a counterbalance to the zoo’s energy on Friday night at Cloud Gate, the bean-shape sculpture in Millennium Park. Luminarias in paper bags outline a “stage” in front of the Bean where a choir stands. Nearly 1,000 visitors grow quiet as the conductor raises his baton. It takes only a few bars of a simple carol written in an Austrian church nearly 200 years ago to create a sense of peace over the throng. We sing “Silent Night,” and our memories of holidays past blend with the ones we’re making right now.
On the Fridays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, thousands of visitors gather near the Bean in Millennium Park to sing carols along with guest choirs and their conductors.
Top holiday stops
Whether you’re in Chicago for the day or the weekend, these destinations shine at Christmastime.
American Girl Place Yes, it’s a madhouse on Black Friday and beyond. But the store, cafe and Celebration Screen draw generations of girls and women together at Water Tower Place. shopwatertower.com
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Check the website for the current holiday schedule. cso.org
Christkindlmarket Dozens of vendors create an open-air community of shopping on Daley Plaza, from mid-November through Christmas Eve. christkindlmarket.com
Holy Name Cathedral Anyone who has admired grand churches in Europe will see stunning similarities in this River North Roman Catholic church. holynamecathedral.org
Lincoln Park Zoo More than 1,000 animals live at this free attraction on the North Side, and the 1 million Zoo Lights brighten an already stellar spot. lpzoo.org
Lights dazzle at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo.
Millennium Park Free caroling takes place at 6 p.m. on Friday nights during the season. Though crowded, the ice-skating is free, too. millenniumpark.org
Museum of Science and Industry The annual Christmas Around the World showcases holiday cultures. msichicago.org
Walnut Room You can’t make reservations, but the wait for a table at dinnertime is shorter than at lunchtime at Macy’s on State Street. Ask for a table under the restaurant’s enormous tree, and order the chicken potpie. visitmacyschicago.com
For more information: Choose Chicago, (312) 567-8500; choosechicago.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2012.)