Unwrapping Chicago’s holiday fun facts for Christmas

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 07: A general view of Macy's on State Street 108th Annual Great Tree Lighting Ceremony on November 7 on November 7, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Macy's)
CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 07: A general view of Macy’s on State Street 108th Annual Great Tree Lighting Ceremony on November 7 on November 7, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Macy’s)

From the Saturday, Dec. 23, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


It’s almost Christmas, and Chicago isn’t only filled with all sorts of holiday fun this time of the year – it’s also filled with all sorts of fun holiday facts. And to do my part in helping get you in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite ones.

It’s still Marshall Field’s to me

Nothing says Christmas in Chicago quite like the windows at Marshall Field’s on State Street – even if the store is now Macy’s.

Back in 1897, Marshall Field’s new display manager, Arthur Fraser, pioneered window design. Particularly popular were his Christmas toy windows, which continued through World War II until the visual team at Field’s devised a new plan. They designed themed windows that spanned the length of State Street and allowed passersby to see an entire holiday story unfold as they walked from one end to the other.

In 1946, to compete with Montgomery Ward’s holiday creation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Field’s also introduced the character Uncle Mistletoe, who you can still spot today sitting atop “The Great Tree” inside the Walnut Room restaurant.

Shaking the trees

Speaking of “The Great Tree,” that iconic Christmastime centerpiece dominating the seventh-floor Walnut Room stands 45 feet tall and sparkles with 3,000 ornaments and 6,000 LED lights. That’s dwarfed, however, by Chicago’s municipal Christmas tree, in Millennium Park, which this year is a 62-foot Norway Spruce donated by Darlene Dortier of Grayslake.

The tree is the 104th in the city’s history, dating back to 1913 when, on Christmas Eve, Mayor Carter H. Harrison lit the first in Grant Park. That inaugural conifer was a 35-foot Douglas Spruce made to look much larger when it was placed on 40-foot poles and studded with smaller trees.

Decorated with 600 multi-colored lights and topped with the Star of Bethlehem, that original tree was a gift from an associate of Captain Herman Scheunemann and was lit in his honor. Scheunemann was the captain of the Rouse Simmons, known as the “Christmas Tree Ship,” which became famous for traversing the icy waters of Lake Michigan each year to bring trees from northern Michigan to Chicago.

The Rouse Simmons was lost in a storm on November 23, 1912, but today is immortalized in the touching stage performance, “The Christmas Schooner,” performed annually at Music Box Theatre in Lakeview.

Caroling by numbers

The Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Chicago.

Over the years, the show has been staged in three different theaters: the original home of the Goodman Theatre on Columbus Drive, the Auditorium Theater and the Goodman’s current home on Dearborn Street. It’s attracted 1.5 million visitors, who have watched eight actors play Scrooge (Larry Yando currently in his 10th year in the role). The cast has performed three scripts under 10 directors and reportedly heeded one weight limit for Tiny Tim.

That’s 50 pounds.

Cracking a new one

For nearly three decades, the Joffrey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker remained unchanged. Then in 2016, a new version was unveiled by choreographer Christopher Wheedon set in Chicago against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Fair, allowing the Joffrey to update the holiday standard by dipping into the city’s past.

Still firing it up

No seasonal show in Chicago has endured longer than the Apollo Chorus, which was founded in the aftermath of the Great Fire and has dazzled audiences during Christmastime for a whopping 146 years.

Each year, the 115-member, all-volunteer choir performs only twice – once at Orchestra Hall and once at Harris Theater – and is best known for its pièce de résistance, Handel’s Messiah.

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