Chicago’s Christmas history a mix of traditions

By Elisa Shoenberger

Chicago’s Christmas traditions are  a mixture of ethnic and racial celebrations, combined with the strategy  of the city’s retailers to form the public celebrations we know today.

“One of the things people don’t  know is that 19th century immigrants (brought) many of the Christ- mas traditions that we know in the  U.S.,” said Julius Jones, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum. While the Christkindlmarket is a relatively new tradition in Chicago,  beginning in 1996, German Christ- mas traditions go back to before the  Great Chicago Fire in 1871. 

But Chicago’s Christmas traditions aren’t just based on Germanic  traditions. Ethnic and racial groups  throughout the city celebrate the holiday in their own robust and unique  ways, Jones said. For example, a midnight Christmas processional takes place in the Ukrainian Village in January, in accordance with the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar.

Many Chicagoans, regardless of background, have traditions centering on the great Christmas tree in the Walnut Room of the former Marshall Field’s department store. In 1907, waiters put up the tree themselves in the room, according to Jones. By the mid-20th century, it was the biggest Christmas tree in the  U.S. and people would  flock from all  over to see it. Macy’s, the current occupant of the former Marshall Field’s  building, keeps the tradition going.

“Retailers absolutely made Christmas into what it is now—a shopping experience,” Bill Savage,  Northwestern professor and Chicago historian, said. Retailers such  as Marshall Field’s and Montgomery Ward were instrumental  in creating the visual culture of Christmas, Jones said.  

The Ward catalog “was the place where you ordered Christmas presents from afar. Marshall Field’s was where families went to look at the window decorations, and to not just buy Christmas presents, but as  a family outing,” Savage said, noting that even the famous character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was  first commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward in 1939.

While certain traditions have persisted, some traditions have fallen by the wayside. Notably, the  Christmas Tree Ship that allegedly brought thousands of trees to  Chicago in the late 19th century. A  ship called Rouse Simmons brought trees from Michigan, until it sank in a terrible storm in 1912.

A year later, Chicago put up its  first official tree in north Grant  Park, commissioned by Mayor Carter Harrison Jr.  The tradition continues but now in Millennium Park.   The tree had been moved to Daley Plaza in 1966 and in 1982 it stood at State Street and Wacker Drive.  

A time of enlightenment in Chicago

by Jacqueline Covey

For many religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and  Paganism, the end of the year marks a time of change, rebirth and renewal. “Almost every religion is celebrating a festival of light,” said Rabbi Seth Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation, “The year is getting darker—what do we want to do? Bring light into the world.” While lighted Christmas trees are a prominent and recognizable symbol of this special time, in a cultural melting pot like Chicago a host of other celebrations are taking place.


Dec. 26 – Jan. 1, 2020

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of African heritage started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karega in response to Christmas commercialism in the U.S. Meaning “first”  in Kiswahili, Kwanzaa signifies the welcoming of the first harvests into the home.  During this cultural holiday, rooms are often decorated with flags and each day, one of the seven candles on a kinara are lit. A feast takes place on the sixth day.  The DuSable Museum of African American History is hosting a Kwanzaa event  from 8-11 a.m. on Dec. 7 and 8 at 740 E. 56th Place.

Hannukkah, Chanukah

Dec. 22 – Dec. 30

Though this celebration is not the most  “major” of Jewish holidays, it is the “supremely fun” Festival of Lights. Generally,  it is observed in the home, according to Limmer. Families gather around the menorah, a multi-branched candelabrum, to light a stem each night. The holiday recognizes the rededication of the Temple after a small group of Jewish rebels were victorious over Seleucid armies looking to drive the culture of Israel to extinction. The Temple’s menorah is said  to have miraculously sustained itself until more oil could be prepared. It lasted eight days.  ere is no one way to celebrate  Hannukkah. Limmer said that house- holds each have their own traditions.   This time of the year is about “taking care of the world around us,” he said. “The teachings of Hannukkah are  the same teachings many others experience,” Limmer said. “We as individuals have a lot that we can do to make  (life) better for a lot of people.”

Winter Solstice

10:19 p.m. on Dec. 21

According to widely-recognized Pagan organization Circle Sanctuary, the winter solstice can be a time of celebration in some cultures.  The day, which varies from year to year, represents the start of the solar year. It celebrates light and the return of the sun. It is also known as Yule. Circle Sanctuary suggests placing holly, ivy and pine cones around the home, “especially in areas where socializing takes place.” Also, mistletoe should be  hung above a “major threshold and (left ) until next Yule as a charm for good luck throughout the year.”

Dhanu Sankranti and Makar Sankranti

Starts Dec. 16 and Jan. 15, 2020

Sankranti represent the change in the sun’s position and these are two of 12 Sankranti on the Hindu calendar. Dhanu Sankranti represents the ninth zodiac, Sagittarius. Nine represents  faith, humanity as well as faith in humanity. Makar Sankranti, closely tied  with kiteying, is a time to recognize the harvest season and celebrated the Sun God.  

Development reshaping city’s skyline

by Jacqueline Covey

Several skyscrapers marching upward in New Eastside and  Streeterville will soon add thou- sands of square feet of residential,  hospitality and retail space. Vista  Tower, sisters Cirrus Condominiums and Cascade Apartments,  Tribune Tower and an upcoming hotel and apartment tower in a  location dubbed Site O will trans- form downtown Chicago’s east- ern border. For local residents  living amidst the daily hum of construction, completion of these towers is just around the corner.

Vista Tower

363 E. Upper Wacker Drive

Expected to open in 2020, Vista Tower will be the third-largest  building in the city and the tallest designed by a woman—Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang. Another first for the city is a blow-through  on the 83rd floor that helps alleviate wind pressure. The building  topped out in April and currently interior work is being completed. The 101-story structure will house 400 condos and a luxury hotel.

Cascade and Cirrus

197 N. Harbor Drive and 225 N. Columbus Drive

These sisters of Lakeshore East are still in the first of two phases, as the dirt has barely settled since the dual-groundbreaking on Sept. 18. Ted Weldon, executive general manager for Lendlease Development in Chicago, said the first stage of construction  consists of Cirrus Condominiums and Cascade Apartments,  in addition to Cascade Park. Residents will also see work being done to the pedestrian and bicycle path that connects the development to Lake Michigan under Lake Shore Drive. There’s  been interest in Cirrus since pre- sales for condos began in spring,  Weldon said. Visit or call (312) 469-8090 for an appointment.

Tribune Tower

435 N. Michigan Ave

Unveiled April 2018, the redevelopment and new construction  project at Tribune Tower began  in 2016 after Golub & Company and the Los Angeles-based  CIM Group purchased the  Gothic landmark and surrounding buildings for $240 million.  The complex will be converted to 162 condos and update the stores below.

The team also hopes to build the second-largest building  in the city. At a Nov. 19 community meeting, Streeterville  Organization of Active Residents (SOAR) and Alderman Brendan Reilly offered details of the plan after residents raised concerns about traffic congestion. Crain’s reported developers have added a  passageway connecting the south and west sides of the building. The through road will mainly serve the hotel, with drop-off lanes and short-term parking.

Site O

Nestled between Aqua and 300 E. Randolph, parcel O is expected to see action in the coming months. Plans include a 33-story luxury apartment building and a 20-story tower that will host two hotels.  

Tiny Tim lives here: New Eastside resident shines in Goodman Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

by Stephanie Racine

Being cast as the alternate for Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” was the result of tenacity by 7-year-old Vikram Konkimalla, a resident in New Eastside.

“‘Resilience always  pays off’ is our family motto,” Vikram’s mother Reema Konkimalla said.

This year was Vikram’s third time auditioning for Tiny Tim, and this time he won the part. Being the alternate for Tiny Tim means he is in the production on  the weekdays, while Vikram’s counter- part, 12-year-old Paris Strickland, plays  the part on the weekends.

Vikram prepared for the role by watching the show several times, reading the Charles Dickens classic and studying a biography about Dickens, according to his mother.

“He was very well prepared this year and very confident,” Konkimalla said.

The Goodman Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol” is in its 42nd year. Many families have made it an annual tradition, according to Publicity Director for Goodman Theatre Denise Schneider. The theater wants to make its yearly production special for all patrons.  If it’s someone’s first time at “A Christmas Carol,” that theater-goer receives a  certificate and a button.

Going to the production was special for  Vikram, even before he was cast. Vikram had his first viewing certificate signed by  Scrooge, played by Larry Yando. He presented it during show-and-tell at school. 

Being in the production has been a special experience for Vikram. He enjoys hanging out with the other kids in the production and going to special events to promote the play.

But his favorite part of being in “A Christmas Carol” involves being on stage.

Vikram’s favorite moment?

“When I get to say, ‘God bless us, everyone!’ at the end,” he said. 

Vikram and his mother agree that if he can do it, so can other kids if they give it their all.

“When I found out he got the part, I was so happy and emotional because my son was resilient in getting the role,” Konkimalla said.

“I was really happy. I have lots of fun,” Vikram said. 

See “A Christmas Carol” at the Good- man Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Ave.,  through December 29. Tickets start at  $25 and are available at, (312) 443-3800 or the box office.  

Cooper’s Hawk opens first urban location

by Doug Rapp

An upscale wine and dining chain that started in the suburbs has come to downtown Chicago in time for the holidays.

Cooper’s Hawk, which has 41 locations nationwide, recently opened its first urban location at 58 E. Oak Street, in the Gold Coast’s historic Esquire building.

“The Esquire space presented the perfect location and footprint to serve as the flagship restaurant (in Chicago),” Executive Chef Matt McMillin said.

The renovation of the space took nearly 10 months, according to publicist Laurie Cairns.

“Incorporating our Napa-inspired look was a fun challenge,”  she said.

The large, multi-floor restaurant and winery covers 23,000 square feet. It can accommodate more than 400 people, with a patio and private event space.

They offer a standard menu plus an Esquire signature page featuring upscale dishes, such as pistachio-crusted Australian rack of lamb, 25-ounce prime, bone-in ribeye and miso-glazed Chilean seabass, McMillin said. He’s excited about the “Tribute to the World of  Wine” signature five-course pairing dinner he curated with master sommelier Emily Wines.

The new Chicago location is the first Cooper’s Hawk to offer wines outside their normal portfolio,  Cairns said. It has 1,600 collections from around the world,  including 750 bottles from the personal collection of founder and CEO Tim McEnery.

In addition to the “immersive” experience of fine wine and  dining, Cairns said Cooper’s Hawk offers Wine Club memberships, featuring new wines each month, available for pickup or shipping.

 “(The wine club) is a great introduction for anyone curious about wine, as Cooper’s Hawk  is all about making wine accessible to everyone,” Wines, the  sommelier, said. “We have over 50 varietals, ranging from sweet wines to big robust reds, and everything in between.”

Cairns said they also have holiday-etched bottles, wine ornaments and a 12 Nights of Christmas gift box, which includes a variety of wines.

“We trust Chicago will embrace what we have created at Cooper’s Hawk Esquire Chicago and look forward to how it evolves over the years,” McMillin said.  

Doorperson of the Month Fred Crocker, The Shoreham at Lakeshore East

by Mat Cohen

The most genuine, enthusiastic fist bump in New Eastside has been found.

 At The Shoreham at Lakeshore East is Fred Crocker, behind the desk with a smile, dishing out fist bumps to kids setting off for school. 

“Once you get to know people, it’s al- most like a family,” he said. “That’s how this  building came together, we’re all so close.” 

Crocker has been named the New East- side News Doorperson of the Month, but  not just because of his fist bumps.

His love for people, kids and dogs has been on display since the building  opened 15 years ago. Crocker learns every resident’s name so as they walk by he  can properly wish them a good day.

“Genuinely, you have to love people,”  he said. “And to get that in return, is a really good feeling.”

Crocker strives to have a positive impact on everyone’s day. If people have a lot to carry he holds the door, if kids are running behind for school he hurries them along and if dogs need a treat he’ll happily hand one over.

“It could be a bad day or whatever, and I can turn it around because they mirror how I’m acting. That makes you feel good when they return the love,” he said. “That’s my favorite part of what I do.” Crocker grew up in Englewood, and lives in Justice.

 For 32 years he has worked as a doorperson, and for 32 years he’s had the first shift  of the day. He prefers the early hours so he has time for his other loves, like taking care of his mother or playing basketball.

“I may be getting older, but these old  bones can still move,” he said. Crocker, with his laid-back attitude, is perfectly content. He’s a loyal Bulls, Bears and Cubs fan who has a clear vision of where he’ll be once retired.

“When I retire I will probably move to a southern state,” he said. “It seems like the people down there are much happier and welcoming. I’m such a laid-back person I can see myself sitting on the farm somewhere just chilling with a straw hat.

“You get my age, you see things a little different.”

To nominate your favorite doorperson, email  

Blind musician makes audiences see Jazz in a different way

by Mat Cohen

For Matthew Whitaker, a blind eighteen-year-old jazz musician who will be playing at Harris Theater in Millennium Park on Dec. 9, hearing and touch are his most gifted senses.

“It makes me feel amazing that the audience is supportive of whatever music I’m playing,” he said. “I always try my best to make the audience feel it just like I do when I’m playing.”

Whitaker lost his sight at birth. Born prematurely in Hackensack, N.J., weighing one pound, 11 ounces, he was given less than a 50 percent chance to live. Three years later, his grandfather gave him a keyboard and he fell in love. He taught himself nursery rhymes and filled the air with music.

“I’ve been in love with [playing] ever since,” he said. “When I was five, I started taking classical piano lessons and when I was six, I started playing drums. At seven I got into jazz music and ever since it’s been my favorite genre to play and listen to.”

Although he draws from many inspirations, he doesn’t remember the exact jazz albums or songs that drew him in.

“Whatever it was, it got me really interested in it,” he said.

He’s been named a Yamaha Artist; he’s made appearances on “Ellen” and “The Today Show;” he won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater when he was 9 years old and opened for Stevie Wonder’s Apollo Theater Hall of Fame induction at age 10. 

The legendary musician has been a great influence for Whitaker.

“It’s an honor to be compared to Stevie Wonder, but there’s really only one Stevie,” he said.

He plays at his church in Hackensack and is majoring in jazz piano in New York. Whitaker spends just about every minute immersing himself in his craft. He has released two albums, “Out of the Box” and “Now Hear This.”

“The first album was called ‘Out of the Box’, which really demonstrates the different styles I can play,” he said. “‘Now Hear This’ shows what else I can do. It features a lot more complex styles and I lot of complex music as well.”

At his performance at the Harris, Mix at Six, the audience will hear a little bit of everything.

“It’s going to be a fun time. Get ready.”

Harris Theater’s President and CEO Patricia Barretto is thrilled to have Whitaker perform.

“It’s great to be able to present a young and astonishing talent,” she said. “It couldn’t be a better fit. I think people are going to be blown away.”

Mix at Six draws younger crowds with its more casual style and feel.

“It’s a place for trying new things and trying exciting things,” she said. “They end up falling in love with what we put on stage. He’s so inspiring, he’s young, he’s a self-starter and it’s going to be inspiring.”

Through the help of sponsors of the Harris Theater, Mix at Six has been showing for about five years with tickets at $15. 
For more information visit–matthew-whitake

Here Comes Santa Claus (and another and another)

by Doug Rapp

 If you see dozens of Santas gathered around the Bean sometime on Dec. 7, don’t worry, he hasn’t been cloned—it’s all part of SantaCon.

The annual holiday convention of Santas occurs nationwide around the holidays when groups of Santa-clad revelers gather, often for a pub crawl. For Chicago, SantaCon will commence the first Saturday in December at noon at the Tavern Tap Pub at the Congress Plaza Hotel, 520 S. Michigan Ave.

“I believe this event to be an outlet for people that like to dress up, drink and spread the holiday spirit,” said one of the co-organizers, who asked to be identified only as Santa Joe. “I personally love the flash mob aspect of SantaCon. The look on kid’s and people’s faces as we stroll down Michigan Avenue in Santa Suits is priceless.” 

When pressed for more information, Santa Joe replied, “Ambiguity is the key.  We are all just Santa.”

Santa Joe said they usually have from 200-500 Santas attend throughout the day. This year, after starting at the Tavern Tap, they plan to stop by the Art Institute for some caroling, surround the Bean from 4:30 to 5:00 p.m., while hitting other bars such as 2twenty2, The Joy District, Clover Sports and Leisure, and the Sleigh Baby Winter pop-up bar.

SantaCon began in the 1990s in San Franciso and, as of 2017, was in nearly 400 cities worldwide, according to their official website,

“Santa Tom started the [Chicago] event in 2005, which he had participated in while he lived in New York  years previous,” Santa Joe said. “In 2006, I heard about the event on the radio station Q101. Starting attending, never missing a year. After a few years, myself and my buddy Ryan took over and we’ve been running it ever since.”

The aforementioned buddy, Santa Ryan, is a Chicago native who commutes downtown for work.

“It’s become a tradition between me and my friends,” Santa Ryan said. “We’re able to go out and have a good time while bringing smiles to children and adults faces. For me it has become part of Christmas. Similar to opening up gifts on Christmas day as a child. Now as an adult I get to go out and celebrate in the city drinking, spreading cheer and creating memories.”Anyone over 21 wishing to join in the fun needs a Santa- or Christmas-themed suit—a Santa hat alone won’t cut it. Register online at Donations are accepted as well.

Starbucks Chicago Roastery a coffee wonderland

By Elisa Shoenberger

At 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 15th, Starbucks Chicago Roastery opened as a temple dedicated to all things coffee. Each facet, from the architecture to food offerings, is a celebration of the exalted coffee bean. 

It’s the “best experiential retail you’ll see anywhere,” guest speaker and Crate and Barrel founder Gordon Segal said. The new store honored the former location of the Crate and Barrel flagship that was designed to be an experience for its customers.

Visitors appear to be filled with wonder as they enter the largest Starbucks in the world. Eyes are drawn to the 56-foot golden cask filled with roasted coffee. It soars up several stories with “symphony piping” shooting roasted coffee to the many bars and coffee stations throughout the store. 

“If you want to come in and just look and grab your coffee, that’s fantastic. But if you want to dig down on coffee and learn everything, then we’re here for that too,” said Marc Wanless, Director of Global Operations, Roasteries at Starbucks. 

Throughout the day, employees roast 25 pound batches of coffee beans that are loaded into the giant cask. All coffee roasted, Wanless explained, was exclusive to the Roastery Chicago location.

By following the cask and symphony piping to the upper floors, visitors will find more than the average Starbucks cup of coffee. There is a holiday special, a three-layered “Pistachio bicerin” at Experiential Coffee Bar on the third floor and exclusive Chicago cocktails infused with Starbucks or Teavana flavors at the fourth-floor bar.

There’s even a station dedicated to whiskey barrel aged coffee where green coffee is put into Knob Creek whiskey barrels, Starbucks partner Shiami Ranasinghe said. 

And as a final nod to the process of coffee, the backstairs feature a five story mural of a coffee harvest by Chicago artist Eulojio Ortega.

While this Roastery is devoted to all aspects of coffee, it’s also a celebration of all things Chicago. The location uses local distilleries for the cocktails and works with Chicago-based chocolatier Uzma Sharif to pair her chocolates with coffee.  

There’s a love letter on the fourth floor of the building with the line: “This Roastery honors all of these years of beautiful coffee in this beautiful city. A shrine to coffee, and a celebration of all we have done and will do here together. Thank you, Chicago.”

“Drink sir, is a great provoker”: Drunk Shakespeare delivers unpredictable laughs

by Doug Rapp

Behind an unmarked door on Wabash Street on a narrow stage, actor Courtney Rikki Green downs four shots of whiskey.

She isn’t fighting stage fright—this is part of the show.

Welcome to Drunk Shakespeare, a self-proclaimed drinking club with a Shakespeare problem. The small troupe performs one of his plays with a twist: one actor is drinking. A lot. 

The chosen actor takes four shots before the show, then two more during the performance in a space modeled to look like a hidden library speakeasy. 

“It’s taking a fresh look at Shakespeare and playing with it and letting people know that it’s approachable,” resident director Kathleen Coombs said.

At two recent performances of Macbeth, Courtney Rikki Green imbibed 12 shots of whiskey throughout the night while playing Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis.

Drunk Shakespeare mainly sticks to the plot but allows plenty of room for improvisation. The actors, including Elizabeth Rentfro and Chelsea David, faithfully recite monologues while breaking into contemporary songs (Radiohead’s “Creep”), pulling audience members on stage or bringing out a birthday cake for actor Jordan Golding, who played Macbeth.  

Thomas Toles is the host, or “designated plot driver” as he calls it.

“I’m there to keep the story somewhat on track and also enable [the actors] at any moment to be their worst selves,” he said.

Green, for her part, held up remarkably well. She did drink hot sauce on stage, made a puppet do inappropriate things and poke Golding in sensitive areas with props, but returned to form to deliver her lines when needed.

“The alcohol helps so much,” Green said. “I’m into it.”

Before joining Drunk Shakespeare, she said the idea of drinking before a performance was unthinkable.

“Now, I’m like ‘Yes!’ That is how I unlock and unfurl and uncover the best parts of my acting ability,” Green said.

Coombs said alcohol helps the actors’ improv, allowing surprises and discoveries for a unique show each time. It all dovetails with Chicago’s reputation as the mecca of improv.

“I think it’s a really great fit for Chicago,” Coombs said. “We’re a theater town, an improv town and a town that loves drinking and having fun.”

Toles said drinking makes Shakespeare more relatable. High school English teachers have told him they wish they could bring classes to see what makes Shakespeare “so special and interesting and fun.” The show is 21 and over.

The diverse audiences at the frequently sold-out shows are approaching Shakespeare from various angles, Toles said.

“That’s a nice feeling when you get the nerdy Shakespeare fan and the jock from the frat house and they both are invested,” he said. “That’s so cool.”

“It’s a unique beast of a show that is truly unlike anything in Chicago,” Green added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, binge drinking (having 4 or more drinks within 2 hours) has serious health risks such as strokes, liver disease, various cancers plus memory and learning problems (like forgetting lines from MacBeth).

Drunk Shakespeare performs Wednesday through Sunday at 182 N. Wabash Ave. Visit for showtimes and tickets.

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