Our region lights up the season with plenty of parades, light shows and Santa Claus appearances, and these six events remain truly unforgettable.
As we welcome the holiday season, families, friends and communities come together in many ways. With festive tree-lighting ceremonies, lively parades and other traditional gatherings, our region’s communities embrace holiday cheer and celebration in grand style, particularly at these six gatherings.
Downtown Crystal Lake’s Festival of Lights
Held on the evening of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Downtown Crystal Lake’s Festival of Lights Parade on Nov. 24 helps families get in the holiday spirit with a magical atmosphere.
“The Festival of Lights parade is our kickoff to the whole holiday season,” says Lynn Reckamp, executive director of Downtown Crystal Lake, which organizes the event. “At Christmastime in our downtown, it’s like we’re living in a snow globe.”
The parade kicks off at 7 p.m. with 40 floats representing community organizations and businesses. Carolers, high school bands, and Boy and Girl Scouts wind their way through downtown as they travel from City Hall down Caroline Street over to Grant Street and up Williams Street. Drawing up the rear, Santa greets people from his sleigh.
This year’s theme, “Holiday Movie Marathon,” encourages participants to decorate in tribute to their favorite Christmas films. Mayor Haig Haleblian and City Council members judge the best floats.
One of the highlights is the arrival of Santa Claus, as he stops at the Brink Street Market courtyard to light the community tree around 8 p.m. Amidst the cheers and excitement of the crowd, Santa sprinkles magic dust on the Christmas tree to set it aglow.
Santa finishes the evening in the Santa House, located just steps away, as he welcomes children and listens to their wishes.
“I always tell my volunteers, ‘If you want a feel-good Saturday or Sunday, you volunteer at the Santa House,’” says Reckamp. “It’s very magical. We don’t charge for it, and we don’t take reservations. It feels so good when you see kids talking to Santa.”
In addition to the parade, Downtown Crystal Lake hosts luminaria nights Thursday evenings in December from 5 to 8 p.m. On those nights, the streets are aglow with luminaria that add to the city’s warm and inviting atmosphere.
“Our downtown events have become an annual family tradition for a lot of people,” says Reckamp. “Everyone always asks how much they owe, and in this world of materialistic Christmas, it’s nice to have this amazing event as something we offer for free.”
Batavia’s Celebration of Lights
The Batavia Riverwalk is all aglow for the season, starting with its grand kickoff on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, at 5 p.m. as part of the city’s annual Celebration of Lights Festival. Organized by the Batavia Park District, this event draws families from all over to witness the Fox River lit with 25 decorated Christmas trees.
“We have so many fun things to do, and it’s exciting to see so many families come and be a part of it,” says Katie Burgess, director of creative development and community engagement for the park district. “We get people traveling from 40 miles away just to see the lights.”
Starting with a community sing-along at 5:15 p.m., the event also brings complimentary hayrides and crafts inside the City Council chambers. In the background, the Batavia Community Band serenades the crowd with melodious tunes.
For the little ones, Santa’s Warming House at the Peg Bond Center offers a chance to meet Santa in person and receive a special treat from Kris Kringle himself. Then, visitors welcome Mayor Jeff Schielke for the ceremonial tree lighting.
As the evening progresses, families gather at the Historical Society’s Gustafson Research Center for story hour from 6:15 to 7 p.m.
New to the event this year is an appearance by several of Santa’s live reindeer. The event also marks a historic moment as, for the first time, Batavia’s Peace on Earth Bridge becomes permanently lit starting at 7 p.m. The bridge is a symbol of unity and community spirit that will remain lit throughout the year.
“This event is about bringing the community together,” says Burgess. “It’s a chance for families to create lasting memories and experience the magic of the holiday season together.”
Woodstock’s Christmas Parade & Lighting of the Square
Generations have gathered on the Historic Woodstock Square to welcome the holiday season. Part of a three-day celebration, the parade and lighting of the Square are full of magic.
“The community feel is one of the things that makes this special,” says Brad Ball, president of the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry. “There are not many communities around here that have that same special kind of feeling, especially if you’re out on the Square in the evening and all the trees and buildings are lit.”
Festivities kick off this year on Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. with the Woodstock Opera House Christmas Tree Walk and the Ginger Bread Walk at the Old Courthouse Center. Santa and Mrs. Claus make their grand entrance at 5 p.m.
Then, the Square’s streets are closed off to make way for the centerpiece of the evening: carolers, children’s activities and the Lighting of the Square at 7 p.m., organized by the Woodstock Opera House and City of Woodstock. In the blink of an eye, tens of thousands of twinkling lights illuminate the Square’s park space, trees and the Victorian-era buildings that surround them.
On Small Business Saturday, free carriage rides around the Square from 2 to 4:30 p.m. allow visitors to soak in the holiday spirit amidst a timeless setting.
The following day, the Christmas parade starts from the Woodstock Water Works at 2 p.m. when as many as 50 floats start making their way toward the Square, heading east on Jackson Street. A panel of judges sitting outside the Woodstock Opera House critiques the floats on their use of holiday theme, creativity and overall presentation, and then awards prizes to the winners.
Immediately following the parade, Cookies and Churros with Santa brings families together from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.
“Woodstock is a great place to live, work and visit, and I think the parade helps underscore the quality of life here,” says Ball, who moved to the city in 2010. “Community organizations are happy to show off who they are and what they do, and to just be part of the season.”
Geneva’s Christmas Walk
Geneva’s fanfare at the beginning of the season has been observed on the community calendar since 1946. Each year, more than 10,000 people descend upon downtown and the Third Street corridor for the annual Christmas Walk.
“Many Genevans count this as the start of their holiday season,” says Laura Rush, communications director for the Chamber of Commerce, which hosts Christmas Walk. “People who used to live here come back and bring their kids because they grew up here with it. The streets are blocked off and you just see hundreds, if not thousands, of people walking around with their families.”
It starts with Bob’s Candy Cane Parade on Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. Trumpeters and drummers march down the festively decorated Third Street from Graham’s 318 Coffee House to the stage across from the Courthouse. Then, the first candy cane of the season is presented to Mayor Kevin Burns. Santa Claus soon arrives with Santa Lucia, a recognition of the city’s deep Swedish heritage.
Then, the illumination of a large Christmas tree on the Courthouse lawn from 6 to 6:30 p.m. casts a magical glow over the crowd. Lights glow all over the lawn, and a North Pole post office encourages children to send their letters to Santa. Old St. Nick also takes up residence at the Geneva Visitor Center through Dec. 17, as he greets children and listens to their Christmas wishes.
The weekend of Dec. 1 and 2 also brings the beloved Holiday House Tour, which features self-guided tours of five professionally decorated homes. This ticketed event not only spreads holiday cheer but it also assists in the cost for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the city’s enchanting holiday decorations, including lights, greenery, trees and complimentary carriage rides.
“We’re very thankful for all our sponsors who help bring Christmas magic to Geneva, especially our presenting sponsors, Little Barn Baby and Little Red Barn Door,” says Rush. “This will always be a very special way to start the holiday season in Geneva.”
Lake Zurich’s Miracle on Main Street
Not so long ago, this community held just a modest tree lighting. But these days, the village goes all out to illuminate its downtown with twinkling lights, joyful carols and the welcoming spirit of the holidays during its Miracle on Main Street event. Set this year for Dec. 2, from 3 to 6:30 p.m., the event has become a beloved tradition for residents and visitors alike.
“This event creates that kind of hometown atmosphere, making it warm and fuzzy with twinkle lights and having our community all in one space,” says Marisa Boynton, recreation supervisor for the Village of Lake Zurich. “It also is a great dive into what Lake Zurich has to offer in terms of our community.”
The festivities start around the intersection of Old Rand Road and Main Street, where a musical showcase features Lake Zurich High School’s Bare Voices & Blue Notes Show Choir, Peace Lutheran Church Bell Choir, DJ Dave Chicago, Cricket Theatre, D95 Elementary Schools and the Academy of Performing Arts.
The fun continues with sleigh rides, visits with Santa’s reindeer, crafts and other fun as anticipation builds for the main event: The arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus upon a fire engine. At Rotary Park, a newly donated 20-foot tree is illuminated at 6 p.m.
For the little ones, the Lion’s Den, at 81 E. Main St., hosts visits with Santa, face painting and a Candy Cane hunt starting at 3 p.m., courtesy of the Lake Zurich Lions Club.
The featured charity Young at Heart Senior Pet Rescue is present with Spot, their mascot, as he collects items from his Holiday Wish List.
Local food vendors tempt the taste buds with delectable treats like roasted chestnuts and popcorn. Warm beverages are a must, with hot cocoa served by the Lake Zurich Area Chamber of Commerce and hot cider courtesy of the Lions Club. Local artisans sell holiday treasures.
“When I was a kid, I did different things with my family, the neighbors and the community, so creating memories for the youth in our community is so important,” says Bonnie Caputo, recreation director for the Village of Lake Zurich. “These events we do throughout the year are about connection, engagement and celebrating your community.”
It also helps that the event has community sponsors including Lake Zurich Tire & Auto, Moore Orthodontics, Baird and Warner, Bright Horizons, LRS, Lake Zurich Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Zurich Lions Club.
Rockford’s Stroll on State
For more than a decade, Rockford’s Stroll on State has welcomed the season with one massive celebration that attracts thousands of visitors from all corners. Scheduled for Nov. 25 this year, it brings fun family entertainment from the early afternoon well into the night.
“My biggest joy is seeing the awe on kids’ faces and the families huddling together to enjoy those moments. For me, that’s what it’s all about,” says Julie Huber, destination development operations manager for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. She’s been a volunteer with the event since it began in 2012. “We love hearing from event attendees that they used to go out of town for Thanksgiving and now they ask their families to join them in Rockford and attend Stroll on State.”
Things start at noon with the Dasher Dash, a holiday-themed 5K through downtown Rockford. A parade starts on South Main Street at 2 p.m. and heads down West State Street across the river, with vibrant floats, marching bands and nine holiday-themed balloons delighting throngs of people who line the sidewalks.
The city’s tree starts glowing at 6 p.m., with fireworks going off at 8:30 p.m. Throughout the day, family-friendly activities include horse and wagon rides, ice skating at the BMO Center and an official North Pole post office box at City Hall where children can leave letters to Santa.
The Fire & Ice displays at State and Second streets and State and Wyman streets feature cozy fire pits and mesmerizing bonfires where blocks of ice dissolve at 5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Additionally, local artists provide live musical entertainment on multiple stages and film junkies gather for showings of “The Grinch” at the Outdoor Movie Land on State Street and the Indoor Movie Land located in Stewart Square.
Stroll on State attractions are largely free of charge, and in collaboration with Rockford Mass Transit District, free shuttles ensure convenient access for all.
“We work hard to make sure that people of any background or financial situation can have the same experience as everybody else,” says Kristen Paul, vice president of destination development for the Rockford Area CVB. “We want kids to feel like they don’t have to pick and choose what they do. They just get to enjoy and be a part of it. I think it’s special that there’s no gates or tickets. You just come as you are and have fun.”