The tradition of brightening dark winter nights with festive lights dates back centuries. And while the practice may have evolved from candles to LEDs, the core desire to chase away dread and gloom is the same, and rarely has it felt more urgent or necessary than in 2020.
In the midst of what feels like the cancellation of everything, it’s cheering to note that Chicago’s biggest outdoor displays are still very much on. We will still have lights — strung by the millions.
Want wattage? Here’s where to go (and a note about a show that didn’t make our list):
Mag Mile Lights Fest: There won’t be a live parade this year, but the Mag Mile will sparkle as magically as ever. A holiday special will air on ABC-7 at 6 p.m. Sunday, complete with a musical performance from Jennifer Hudson. The entertainment will be capped off with the lighting of Michigan Avenue’s trees.
Lincoln Park ZooLights: This quintessential Christmas-in-Chicago experience has been tweaked a bit in 2020. The biggest change is a $5 admission fee per person, including infants and children. Timed ticketed reservations are required for the display, which runs, 4-10 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 3. The zoo has set aside five free days: Nov. 24 and Dec. 9, 17, 21 and 29. Tickets are still required for entry on free days and will be released the Sunday prior to each date at 4 p.m.
Brookfield Zoo: The 600-foot-long “Tunnel of Light” is just one of the many attractions at Brookfield Zoo’s “Holiday Magic” exhibit, now in its 39th year. Advance admission and parking tickets are required, with reservation times available in 20-minute increments. Holiday Magic dates are Nov. 27-29; Dec. 2-6, 9-13, 16-20 and 26-31.
Morton Arboretum: “Illumination,” the arboretum’s fantasia of color, light and music, has been re-imagined as a drive-through experience. Enjoy this wonderland from the warmth of your car. To accommodate as many guests as possible, even while shifting to a timed ticketed policy, the arboretum has extended the exhibit’s hours and available dates, including Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The display runs through Jan. 3.
Millennium Park: Chicago’s official Christmas tree was lit Thursday. (Watch the archived celebration on YouTube.) The 45-foot blue spruce, donated by a Morgan Park family, will glow brightly in Millennium Park through Jan. 7, near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street.
Light Up King Drive: Here’s a display that’s powered as much by Christmas spirit as it is electricity. In 2019, My Block My Hood My City and an army of volunteers and donors from across Chicago teamed up to decorate 475 light poles and 250 homes, stretching eight miles on King Drive from 51st Street to 115th Street. This year’s goal is to light up 500 street poles and 500 homes, from 35th Street to 115th Street for 12 miles of radiance. Click here to learn how to participate.
Finally, there are the DIY neighborhood displays that range from the kind of extravaganza that draws gawkers from miles away to the single strand of random lights draped over a scraggly shrub. Magical, we say, every last one of them.
Before you ask, “What about the Chicago Botanic Garden’s amazing ‘Lightscape’ display?” We didn’t forget to include it. It’s sold out. (Back to the list.)