The snow is coming, and so are the holiday festivities and traditions that we hold dear. From one of the largest light festivals in the Midwest to an historic downtown square, we highlight our favorite civic gatherings.
Something magical happens as we come together to welcome the holidays in our communities. Northwest Quarterly searched for the best civic holiday events our region has to offer. Here are some of our favorites.
1. Christmas Walk and House Tour, Geneva, Dec. 2-4, Downtown Geneva, Third & State streets
For the past four decades, this city has made the most of its Swedish heritage and small-town charm during the holiday season. Organized annually by the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, the Geneva Christmas Walk and House Tour draws some 20,000 people throughout the weekend, starting with a Friday night parade that steps off at Graham’s Chocolates, 302 S. Third St.
“Graham’s brings in professional candycane pullers from all over the country, and you can watch them making candy canes through the store windows,” says Laura Rush, the chamber’s communications manager. “When the first candy cane comes out of the oven, they take it, still hot, down the street to present it to the mayor, in a big parade with horns and bells.”
With that, the mayor lights up the official tree, and the season begins. Choirs fill the streets. Santa Lucia delivers traditional pepparkakors (Swedish cookies) to children, and merchants offer a special treat to window shoppers along State Street: live mannequins.
“We recruit many high schoolers to help us out,” Rush says. “They go to the store to model clothes or feature products. The owner says, ‘You’re going to decorate a tree.’ ‘You’re going to paint pictures.’ ‘You’re wearing jewelry.’ The kids can be creative and people see the stores.”
Over at State Street Jewelers, 214 W. State St., store manager Martha Sanchez adds her own spin. “Our jeweler takes his equipment and sits in the window. It’s fun to watch him work,” Sanchez says.
On Friday and Saturday, visitors can tour homes decorated for the holidays by interior designers.
“I am all about the holiday,” Rush says. “Honest to goodness, I love being out there on Friday night, running the show and watching those children’s faces. The holidays, to me, are all about the kids.”
2. Holiday Homecoming, St. Charles, Nov. 25-26, Downtown St. Charles
While big box stores nationwide lure Black Friday shoppers, merchants in downtown St. Charles promote their locally owned businesses.
“We have Christmas trees along poles on Main Street, and Lincoln Park is lit up,” says Lynne Schwartz, marketing manager for the Downtown St. Charles Partnership. “We light up the municipal building and the fire station, and we have a Christmas tree and Santa house on First Street. They’re very festive and beautiful, set against the Fox River.”
The weekend begins simply. On Friday, Mayor Donald DeWitte and local high school choirs welcome Santa and Mrs. Claus for the lighting of the downtown decorations and community tree. This year, the Lighting of the Lights festival takes place at the First Street Plaza, just behind Za Za’s Italian Steakhouse.
Saturday morning, the downtown comes alive with Christmas spirit, starting at the Arcada Theatre, which shows holiday movies. All afternoon, horse-drawn sleighs take visitors around Lincoln Park, at West Main and Fifth streets, and children visit Santa at the First Street Plaza.
Starting at 5:30 p.m., the Electric Christmas parade begins on Main Street, stepping off Sixth Street near Lincoln Park, and ending at Fourth Avenue near Baker Park. Nearly 60 lighted floats are sponsored by local businesses, and local retailers welcome holiday shoppers with extended hours.
Jim Petterec, owner of JP Jewelers, 151 S. First St., has joined in the festivities the past two years, since relocating from Bartlett. He decorates his shop and offers hot cider, cookies and goodwill to visitors.
“We actually go out and invite people over to our store,” Petterec says. “We tell them what we do and invite them to stop in for refreshments and to look around.”
3. Arboretum of South Barrington, Nov. 19 & 27, Routes 59 & 72
Not every shopping mall hosts a tree-lighting and holiday event schedule, but then The Arboretum of South Barrington isn’t your average shopping center.
This year, Santa comes a little early to the upscale, outdoor luxury mall at Routes 72 and 59 in South Barrington. On Nov. 19, the jolly old soul makes a preview appearance at The Arboretum’s fountain, just outside the iPic movie theater. All day, the theater plays holiday movies and provides cookies and milk to children. The following week, on Black Friday, Santa returns to officially light the shopping center’s 40-foot Christmas tree.
“We decorate above and beyond other malls,” says Allison Krupp, marketing director. “We do a giant Christmas tree. All of our plazas get decorated with lights and festive touches.”
The landscaped entrances are adorned in garland and lights, and crews string some 900 light strands around the center’s 2,700 trees; a giant center clock tower is adorned with wreaths. Last year, The Arboretum opened an outdoor ice skating rink, and high school choirs performed with a cast member from the Broadway show “Wicked.”
“We create experiences here,” Krupp says. “The Christmas here makes me feel like when you’re young, and you marvel at everything Christmas. Now as an adult, I feel like that again.”
Scott Price, owner of Toms-Price Home Furnishings, enjoys the festive mood here, too. Along with fine furniture, his store is filled with Christmas home décor, angels, trees and lights. Outside, holiday decorations and ongoing events set apart Price’s newest store from his four other Chicagoland locations.
“I think these events are unique, and the high-end setting of The Arboretum is just great,” Price says. “It’s unlike anyplace else.”
4. Festival of Lights Parade, Nov. 25, Crystal Lake
For close to 20 years, Crystal Lake has welcomed Santa Claus in high style, with a giant parade. The crowd of onlookers on Williams Street alone is often 12 bodies deep, says Diana Kenney, executive director of Downtown Crystal Lake.
This year’s parade kicks off at 7 p.m. on Nov. 25. It starts at city hall, follows Caroline Street to Crystal Lake Avenue, moves northeast along Grant Street, east on Woodstock Street, and ends on Williams Street, where a 40-foot community tree has been planted.
Santa Claus follows behind 50 floats, whisked along by a horse-drawn sleigh.“At the end, Santa throws his magic dust and lights up all of the Christmas lights around the community tree,” Kenney says. “Then he walks into the Santa house and Christmas has begun.”
Shopkeepers extend their hours, welcoming old friends and making new ones. Mary Batson, owner of Out of the Box, 71 N. Williams St., sells hats, gloves and scarves to those who seek warmth during the parade.
“It goes back to that Christmas tradition,” Batson says. “No matter how old we get or how connected to our smartphones, people will always find this connection to the season. Kids push their faces in the windows to look at the displays and it’s so much fun.”
The day after the parade, which is held on Black Friday, local merchants stage Small Business Saturday, as part of a nationwide push to shop local. “A lot of people go shopping at the big-box stores, but many want a down-home feel,” Batson says. “It’s a great place to find something you can’t find at a big-box store.”
As the season continues, so does the fun. Santa visits his downtown house every Thursday through Sunday, and local merchants submit custom creations to the annual Gingerbread Contest, a Salvation Army fundraiser.
A few miles north of Crystal Lake is the small, unincorporated town of Ridgefield, which stages its own Kris Kringle Days, from Nov. 25-27. Its dozen or so storefronts are separated by a railroad line and a grain bin, but they’re charmers.
“It’s a quaint little village here,” says Theresa Wendt, chief organizer and antique dealer. “A lot of people call us Mayberry, USA, because that’s sometimes how it feels.”
To promote their stores, the antique dealers create a float for the Crystal Lake Festival of Lights Parade. “They see us there, and we hand out business cards and throw candy to the kids,” says Fisher. “It helps us get the word out, and it’s fun.”
5. Window Wonderland, Elgin, Dec. 3, Downtown Elgin
Downtown Elgin becomes a winter – er, window – wonderland during this annual event in which the main attraction is dozens of decorated downtown windows. Some store owners create their own displays, while others ask volunteers to craft something special. Last year, one group created a 3-D Christmas tree from recycled materials.
“It’s really a sight for the senses,” says Jason Pawlowski, event organizer and promotions coordinator for the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin.
Now in its 13th year, Window Wonderland draws about 600 people, starting around noon. There’s live music, chestnut roasting, a live nativity scene with petting zoo, ice sculpting and both reindeer and kids’ sleigh rides. At 5 p.m., Santa rides in to city hall and lights the 20-foot city Christmas tree.
“The thing that excites me is that there’s a lot happening downtown that day that we can promote,” Pawlowski says. “There’s a holiday tea at the history museum, performances at the Elgin Art Showcase and even a winter farmers market.”
For merchants, it’s a chance to have some fun and make new friends. Ray Maxwell, owner of Elgin Antiques & Uniques, 203 and 207 E. Chicago St., will have some fun with this year’s event theme: “Rockin’ in a Window Wonderland.” One of his four store windows will be filled with antique rocking chairs.
“It draws people to our store,” he says. “They like to ‘window shop.’ Sometimes, we sell stuff straight out of the windows, but they also like to see what else we have and come inside and look around.” The throngs of window-watchers remind Maxwell of the Christmas windows at the old Marshall Field’s, in downtown Chicago.
“I’ve been to a few Christmas walks, but I think the unique thing here is that there’s nothing like celebrating Christmas in a busy downtown,” Pawlowski says. “Some walks are more residential, and that’s fine, but our historic, urban setting is something really special.”
6. Aurora Festival of Lights, Nov. 25-Dec. 26, Phillips Park, Aurora
With more than 30,000 light bulbs, 63 displays and some 20,000 suburban visitors every year, the Aurora Festival of Lights just keeps snowballing.
“Every year, we get more displays,” says Ron Gabaldon, festival chairman. “I look at all of the new displays and I know that if we stay on this course, we could become the largest display in the Midwest.”
Held in Aurora’s Phillips Park, and coordinated by the Rotary Club of Aurora, the drive-through festival features professionally designed displays, each sponsored by a local business or charitable organization. The event is free, but driver donations benefit local charities.
Entering the park, drivers pass under a tunnel of lights composed of five 500-foot LED light strands. In one display, an animated penguin family slides down a hill; a reindeer visits the hospital in another.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Pam Bellm, operations coordinator for the event, oversees the erecting of every display in the park, enlisting the aid of some 200 local electrical workers and other community volunteers.
“I like the outreach into the community,” Bellm says. “We’ve reached out to many groups in the community and they’ve given so much back.”
This year, LED lights will help to reduce energy usage. The toy factory display alone contains nearly 5,300 individual bulbs, while Old Man Winter has 1,850.
Gabaldon and Bellm enjoy watching carloads of people stream through the park. “The fun I get is seeing the smiles on kids’ faces,” Gabaldon says. “We get kids who are just awestruck by the displays and you just see their eyes get really big as they complete their journey through the parade.”
7. Victorian Christmas. Woodstock, Nov. 25-27, Woodstock Square
For nearly 30 years, some 2,000 Woodstock residents have welcomed the Christmas season with a weekend full of activities on the square, but the event has humble roots.
“When it started, we were just testing the lights,” says John Scharres, festival committee member. “We said, ‘Why don’t we tell people we’re going to do this and invite people here?’ At first, crowds were so small that we raffled off a chance to turn on the lights. Now, we have so many people.”
On Friday night, village officials and Miss Woodstock light the tree. By Saturday, the square is filled with carolers dressed in Victorian garb. Sunday afternoon, a parade winds through the square, with Santa Claus at the heel. Afterward, Santa visits the milk and cookie reception at Woodstock City Hall, and high school students perform madrigals at Woodstock Opera House.
In his day job as managing director of the opera house, Scharres and staff spend months planning and preparing decorations for the square. This season’s events lineup includes The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, The Nutcracker Ballet, “Ed Hall’s Woodstock Christmas Guitar Night,” and country star Bryan White’s “A White Christmas.”
“Growing up, my parents owned a shop on the square, and I always enjoyed seeing the lights and decorations,” says Jenny Serritella, event coordinator. “That weekend was always magical to me.”
8. Celebration of Lights, Batavia, Nov. 27, Batavia Riverwalk
As Batavia kicks off the holiday season on Nov. 27, its Riverwalk comes alive with light. Running along the Fox River, this scenic boardwalk is home to the city’s annual tree-lighting festival and a flurry of holiday activity.
Around 6 p.m., the mayor and Santa officially light the tall city Christmas tree. Afterward, children may visit Santa, and Mayor Jeff Schielke and his wife join others in reading Christmastime stories at the library. The fire department hosts a bake sale and kids’ coat drive, and madrigal singers from Batavia High School lead a community sing-along.
“It’s such a family event,” says Kari Miller, marketing and public relations manager for the Batavia Park District. “You see older kids with younger siblings and people of all ages gathering here.”
Along the walking path, visitors also find the Christmas Tree Lane, 25 cut trees decorated by community organizations. The tradition started in 1992 with plywood Christmas cards and has grown into a Riverwalk staple.
Downtown merchants decorate their windows and extend store hours. “It’s become such a community tradition,” says Miller. “Even though Batavia isn’t a small town, it feels that way. We pride ourselves on that feeling.”
9. Holiday Festivities, Long Grove, Through Dec. 31, Downtown Long Grove
It’s like a page out of Charles Dickens as 1830s-style Long Grove hosts holiday activities throughout the season.
It all begins the weekend of Nov. 18, when the village hosts a tree lighting ceremony with Santa Claus. After Thanksgiving, there are store-sponsored special events each weekend, such as cookbook signings, decorating and craft classes, wine walks and carolers.
“It’s very picturesque, especially when we get a little snow,” says Peg Ball, owner of Long Grove Soap and Candle, 128 Old McHenry Road. “Most of our shops are decorated, and we have white lights outside. It feels very Charles Dickens.”
Ball trims out her store and erects white metal snowmen outside. She especially enjoys the carolers, some professional, some from nearby high schools. When they show up in costume at the 19th century-style village, she quickly jumps into the holiday mood.
“We’re individual shops and you walk on cobblestones,” she says. “We’re not a mall. We’re something special.”
10. Downtown Christmas Walk, McHenry, Nov. 20, Downtown McHenry
McHenry’s annual Christmas walk brings out a lot of character … of the costumed variety. During this daylong celebration downtown, more than 20 costumed actors, dressed as M&M candies, Peter Pan, fairy princesses and the like, join hundreds of visitors in celebrating Christmas. Starting Nov. 20 at 10 a.m., events wrap up at sundown with the annual tree lighting in Veterans Park.
Around 1 p.m., nearly 800 motorcycle riders – in costume – fill the streets for the annual Christmas parade.
“Bikers come from all over Chicagoland,” says Kay Bates, president of the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce. “This is a very networked group, and we’re talking about rows and rows of bikers from all over.”
Bates, who oversees planning and operations with a group of downtown merchants, has been involved with the Christmas Walk for 25 of its 30 years.
“I love seeing the young children,” Bates says. “They get very excited and their excitement is contagious. You can’t help but smile and have fun.”
Carol Chrisman, owner of Black Orchid Boutique, 1226 N. Green St., is especially excited about the charitable activities planned for the weekend. One store collects canned pet food for struggling families; another collects toys for needy youngsters.
“It’s huge to be involved in something that benefits all of our downtown businesses,” Chrisman says. “I believe in telling people to go into this shop, or that shop, because as local businesses, we’ve got to support each other.”
11. Holiday Rock on the Fox, Algonquin, Dec. 3, Riverfront Park
Algonquin welcomes the holiday season with one big event, then continues the fun throughout December. On the evening of Dec. 3, Santa makes a grand appearance at Riverside Park, as he lights the village Christmas tree. He’ll be joined by Charles Dickens singers, student choirs and costumed characters. Then, at 5 p.m., little ones enjoy a candy cane hunt.
Although chief organizer Corrine Kroger is planning her first event here, she’s spent many years planning a similar one in Naperville. This year, she looks forward to starting new traditions.
“For me, it’s seeing all the families come together,” says Kroger, recreation superintendent for the village’s events and recreation department. “I love seeing the excitement, whether it’s children finding 10 candy canes or families seeing Santa for the first time.”
Wade Merritt, new owner of Café Firefly, 301 S. Main St., this year provides hot chocolate and warm, home-baked goods to visitors. After working for the village for 25 years, he’s eager to put others in the Christmas spirit.
“It’s a great community event,” he says. “It’s great to get the holidays going. Everyone loves hot cocoa, especially if it’s good chocolate. Being a new business owner, I want to be very involved in the community, and this is a great way to do it.”
12. Welcoming Santa, Barrington, Dec. 1-4, Various shopping centers.
When Barrington welcomes Santa to town, it’s a weekend-long celebration. This year, it will combine activities once staged separately.
“Every year, we have Santa’s arrival on the first weekend of December,” says Anne Garrette, village marketing and events coordinator. “I’ve been here 17 years, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see him arrive.”
Starting Thursday, Dec. 1, merchants set luminaries outside their stores. On Friday, residents are encouraged to dine out at locally owned restaurants.
But Barrington’s big day is Saturday, with events at several shopping districts. Starting at 10 a.m., Santa is welcomed at the Foundry Shopping Center, 762 W. Northwest Highway. Photos with Santa, a petting zoo and goodies from local shops are featured.
By 2 p.m., Santa hops on a trolley and visits the Ice House Mall, 200 Applebee St., a collection of locally owned shops set inside a historic dairy. Children start their morning with storytelling by Mrs. Claus, then munch on milk and cookies provided by Ice House shops. Children can sit on Santa’s lap before he sees a dance presentation of The Nutcracker Ballet. At about 3:45 p.m., Santa leaves for the small stores along Lageschulte Street, and to be serenaded by carolers.
By 5 p.m., Santa jumps on a fire truck and rides into the Village Center, where, with great fanfare, he lights the Christmas tree. Maria Straussner, marketing director for the Ice House Mall, enjoys watching the children celebrate the season with St. Nicholas.
“He’s the most wonderful Santa,” she says. “He’s genuine, and yes, he even takes hot cocoa breaks. He donates his time to Northwest Community Hospital just to be with children. He really is like you’d expect Santa to be.”
No matter where you live, why not make an effort to celebrate the season alongside members of your community and enjoy the hospitality offered by locally owned businesses? After all, something magical happens as we welcome winter and begin our holiday festivities together.