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4 Popular Must-See Holiday Festivals

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The holiday season is a special time of year to make memories with the people we hold dear. We take a look at four quintessential holiday events that are sure to spark your family’s holiday spirit.

For the 10th time, the Aurora Festival of Lights will illuminate the night sky.

For the 10th time, the Aurora Festival of Lights is illuminating the night sky.

As the holiday season dawns, bright lights take the place of cold, dark skies, and quality time with family and loved ones becomes a little more special. It’s the perfect time to experience light shows, holiday boat cruises and other family-friendly activities in the region.

As we enjoy another festive holiday season, consider a few of these family-friendly activities that are sure to put you in the right spirit.

Aurora Festival of Lights

Aurora’s nickname is the “City of Lights,” and every December, the city lives up to its moniker.

For the 10th year now, the Aurora Festival of Lights is illuminating a 1.1-mile stretch of Phillips Park, 615 S. Smith Blvd., in Aurora.

The annual festival brings out LED-illuminated displays of iconic holiday images such as elves and reindeer, holiday trains and large snowflakes.

This year it runs through Dec. 26 and is open Sunday to Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.

The event got its start in 2007 when members of the Aurora Rotary Club partnered up with the City of Aurora.

“We got the idea to do this from a lighting display in Dubuque,” says Larry Byers, a Rotarian member and organization president the year of the inaugural event. “Our lighting display is quite the sight.”

This year, visitors to the festival can spot a 20-foot-tall singing Christmas tree.

“It sings Christmas carols and it’s definitely a big wow factor,” Byers says.

The drive-through light display is free of charge, but guests are encouraged to share a goodwill offering. The Festival of Lights has contributed proceeds to local organizations including local school districts and Aurora Township Youth Services.

Work for the festival begins in July, when Rotarians and other community members remove hundreds of lights that are stored on three semi trucks.

“The light show is way bigger than any of the other area shows,” Byers says. “We have a lot more lights, by a long shot. You also have to pay for the other festivals, and ours is free.”

Organizers say Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.

Organizers say Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum

The trees at Morton Arboretum, in Lisle, appear much brighter in December.

For the fourth year, Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum, is brightening the trees and the sky to create a magical wintertime walk in the woods.

“This light show will give people a chance to see our trees in a new light,” says Anamari Dorgan, director of education. “This is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Through Jan. 3, trees on about 50 acres of Arboretum landscape remain transformed, as their naked branches light up the night in shades of blue, purple, green and hot pink.

Along the one-mile walking path, black walnut and hickory trees change colors as you sing to them. Other trees sport other interactive features.

“Visitors can literally hug a tree and, when they do that, it will change colors,” Dorgan says. “It’s definitely a hit.”

There’s also the popular Crystal Promenade, where 24 chandeliers of different sizes light up the forest from high above.

Returning this year is the Symphony Woods, which features lights dancing to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” as recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

New this year, visitors can watch as projections of abstract designs splash across the Arboretum’s hemlock trees.

The dramatic grand finale takes visitors through a magical walkway where slender, white rods are installed between the Arboretum’s hedges, which provides reflective layers of pencil-thin pillars of light. Watch as these synchronized beams chase over one another and extend skyward.

Music plays throughout the one-mile path. Fire pits and refreshment stands are located along the walkway, too, so that visitors can warm up.

The event is open nightly from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., with the final entry at 8:30 p.m.

Tickets are available at the Arboretum’s Visitor Services desk, online at MortonArb.org, or by calling (630) 719-2066.

Guests can take a walk down Main Street during Living Windows and watch different storefronts come to life.

Visitors can take a walk down Main Street during Living Windows and watch different storefronts come to life.

Christmas Events in Galena

Christmas is a special time of year in Galena. Three events happen each year in this quaint, historic tourist destination that bring out the Christmas spirit in everyone.

Galena’s finest bed-and-breakfasts join forces and open their doors for the annual Mistletoe Stroll Holiday House Tour, which happens this year on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17, from 2 to 5 p.m. Visit the parlors and dining rooms of each location and enjoy some tasty treats along the way.

This year, nine locations participate: Aldrich Guest House, Alice’s Snyder House, Annie Wiggins Guest House, Avery Guest House, Belle Aire Guest House, Hawk Valley Retreat & Cottages, Hellman Guest House, Lamberson House and Steamboat House.

“Each place will serve you holiday goodies like gingerbread cookies and candy canes,” says Katherine Walker, executive director of the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Anyone can do this.”

Tickets and maps of participating bed-and-breakfasts, along with a description of each house, are available at any of the nine locations on the day of the event. Attendees may begin at any participating inn. For more information, visit bestofgalena.com.

During the Night of the Luminaria, which happens this Dec. 10, the streets, steps and sidewalks of downtown Galena are lined with nearly 5,000 candle-lit luminaries during the event. You can stroll, drive, take a trolly or enjoy a carriage ride and take in the festive sights.

“This fits in with who we are as a historic destination,” Walker says. “Businesses and homes in the vicinity will also have the luminarias. Our downtown will look beautiful and pretty.”

Another popular event that happens on the same day is Living Windows. Guests can stroll down Main Street and watch dozens of storefronts literally come to life as actors occupy the window displays.

“It’s really unique,” Walker says. “Some windows will have Santa and Mrs. Claus, and other windows have the Grinch and little elves.”

Families no longer have to be on snowy land to enjoy Christmas. That's because the Lake Geneva cruise line is now offering Santa Cruise boat tours.

The Lake Geneva Cruise Line is now offering Santa Cruise boat tours.

Santa Cruise on Geneva Lake

You don’t have to be on snowy land to take in the most wonderful time of the year.

The Lake Geneva Cruise Line starts a new tradition this year with its Santa Cruise boat tours.

Families who come aboard the boat cruise, which runs through Dec. 31, will be immersed with the twinkling lights and displays along the Geneva Lake shoreline.

The route passes the festively lit Village of Williams Bay and allows a unique view of the decorations upon the shoreline’s many homes.

“This is something new and different that we are trying,” says Jack Lothiam, general manager for Lake Geneva Cruise Line.

Cruises are available Wednesday through Sunday evenings and run every hour from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tours operate daily between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but will not run Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.

Families board the boat at Gage Marine and its Pier 290 restaurant in Williams Bay. The magical Christmas cruise ends up at the North Pole Pier, where kids and adults can meet Santa Claus.

Just because this is a December cruise doesn’t mean you’ll be uncomfortable, Lothiam says. Guests ride aboard the Grand Belle, which provides a comfortable, climate-controlled ride.

Mixed drinks, beer, wine, soft drinks and hot chocolate will be available on the boat, and several activities will keep the kids engaged.

“This is a new and exciting way to celebrate Christmas with the entire family,” Lothiam says.

For tickets, visit CruiseLakeGeneva.com or call (262) 248-6206. A potion of ticket sales will benefit Santa Cause, which supports local charities.

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