Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Celebrations Around the World

We all have our personal family traditions to uphold during the holidays, and then we have the traditions that are customary in our country--such as elaborate lighting decorations, immaculate present wrapping, leaving cookies for Santa, etc. What truly fascinates me is the variations of these traditions that are common in other countries. I was reading a column from Rick Steves--one of my favorite travel experts--in the Chicago Tribune, and he was talking about how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world. I recall being in Italy as November slowly transitioned into December, and the holiday spirit began to emanate throughout Rome. While I grew just as excited for the season as I normally do, it was odd--and pleasant--to be surrounded by different cultural beliefs and customs.

In Italy, Christmas is three weeks long and begins at Novena, eight days before Christmas. All around the country, Zampognari and Pifferai--bagpipers and flute players dressed in traditional shepherding outfits--travel from home to home playing Christmas songs. Many families have a Ceppo, also called a tree of light, which is a wooden, pyramid-shaped frame with shelving. It holds the nativity scene at the bottom, with fruit, candy and treats above. On Christmas Eve, most Italians will fast in observance of the holiday. Then they celebrate with a small feast of chocolate and Panetoni, a light Milanese cake. Traditional Italian Christmas cookies are baked every year, and I have had the privilege of enjoying these when my grandma used to make them. I must admit, as a child I did not care the Anise flavor--similar to licorice--but now I thoroughly love these tasty morsels. The Urn of Fate is an old Italian tradition where each member of the family takes turns pulling a gift out of a large decorated pot. Some presents have gifts inside, while others are empty boxes. Italian children do not receive their gifts until Epiphany on January 6, when La Befana--the kindly witch--flies around to distribute gifts to the kids. According to tradition, the three Wise Men stopped at the witches hut to ask for directions to Bethlehem. When asked to go with them, the witch refused, but later regretted her decision when she saw the light from the star shining in the sky. She gathered as many toys and gifts as she could and flew off to find the men and the baby Jesus, but to no avail. Now she flies around every year looking for the Christ Child, leaving gifts for all children in the hopes they might be him.

In Germany, the holiday season starts December 1, with people baking spiced cakes and gingerbread. On December 6, Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, is acknowledged, and children place their shoes and boots outside the door in the hopes that they will find a present inside the next morning. Christmas markets pop up in every city in Germany during this time of year, and vendors sell everything from hand-carved nutcrackers and glass ornaments to roasted nuts and mulled wine--Gluhwein. Everyone enjoys the oldest German Christmas treat, Stollen, a sweet bread. Most German families decorate the Tannenbaum--the Christmas tree--on Christmas Eve, making it a fun holiday activity for the children.

The French vary in their Christmas traditions depending on the region they live in. However, there are some customs that everyone upholds, no matter what. All homes are adorned with a nativity scene or creche, which holds tiny clay figures called santons or little saints. For centuries, the yule log was burned in hearths as part of the holiday celebrations. While that custom has become less and less common, the French still bake log-shaped cakes during this time called Buche de Noel. The main Christmas feast is known as Le Reveillon, a late supper served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies with each region, some enjoy goose and turkey while others dine on oysters and pat de foie gras.

Polish tradition marks this time of year as not only a celebration of Christ's birth, but also as a sign of what's to come in the next year. Anything that happens during the Christmas season is seen as an omen, so the Polish observe everything carefully. With that sense of karmic energy and hospitable nature, the Polish always keep an extra chair around the table for the unexpected guest, because no one should be alone on Christmas, and there should always be a place for everyone. A widely held Polish tradition is the breaking of the Oplatek--Christmas wafer. On Christmas Eve, after the appearance of the first star, the whole family gathers around the table, and the father or eldest member breaks the wafer and hands it to the next person until everyone has broken a piece off. Then they all wish each other love, prosperity and good health in the new year.

The countries in South America have their traditions deeply rooted in religion. Families in almost every country display an elaborate manger or presepio scene, which can sometimes be so large that they take up entire rooms. There are a series of novenas, public gatherings, of worship in the form of prayers, songs and poetry, and most of these take place in a nine-day span. South Americans flock to church services on Christmas Eve, and follow the service with grand feasts and family visits on Christmas Day. Gift giving is prolonged all the way until Epiphany.

Christmas celebrations in Asia vary between religions. Christians in China decorate trees with colorful paper ornaments, lanterns and chains. They hang muslin stockings for Christmas Old Man to leave tiny presents in. Non-Christians celebrate this time as the Spring Festival, where they honor their ancestors and traditions with feasts, gift-giving and firework displays. Only 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, but the country still decorates its cities with evergreens and engage in gift exchanges. Hoteiosha, a priest, acts as Santa Claus and goes around distributing gifts. It is said he has eyes in the back of his head, so children try to be good when he is around. In India, Christians decorate banana and mango trees for the holidays. However, it isn't just limited to Christians. Christmas has become a secular overtone, and all religions take part in the joyous celebrations.

Of course there are many more holiday traditions around the world that I didn't get to mention, but I'm not sure I have the time or room to talk about them all. Along with country customs, each family practices their own traditions that make their holiday unique and special to them. It's true, however, that no matter what part of the world you're in during the holidays, one thing is always the same: The delightful comfort of love and care towards our fellow man. And while every nation may celebrate in a different way, we all are filled with the spirit of giving, the warmth of family and the joy of life. Happy Holidays! Wherever you are!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas in the Sun

2009_1122Halloween0111I guess you can call me a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas. Cold weather, snow on the ground, pine trees, presents under the tree, roaring fireplace, mugs of hot chocolate, a roasted ham and dinner with family. However, this is not the ideal scenario for everyone during the holidays. Two of my friends just left for a trip to Hawaii to celebrate Christmas. Warm temperatures, beaches, palm trees and dinner at a hotel restaurant. I know many people who take trips to warmer climates during the Christmas season, opting for a few days of sun instead of snow, catered dinners rather than home-cooked meals.

For some, going on a vacation at Christmas is the norm. Whether its heading to a tropical paradise or visiting family in another country, a holiday trip serves the purpose of getting people away from the hectic atmosphere Mahaulepu2that can erupt during this time. Cooking, entertaining, decorating and cleaning can all take a toll, making the holiday season feel more like a chore than a break. A getaway to a warm destination is an opportunity for people to relax, order room service and have everything provided for them. Not only that, but they can enjoy the outdoors without worrying about getting frostbite. It is certainly understandable why many families decide to travel for the holidays.

Winter Break 07-08 (14)I have only spent one Christmas away from home in a warm climate. I was fourteen, and my family took a trip to Australia to see my dad’s sisters and parents. It being their summer, it was in the high 70s and 80s the whole time. I spent Christmas day swimming in the pool, getting a tan and barbequing fresh seafood. It was certainly a change from the norm, and for one year it was enjoyable. And while doing a trip like that again could be fun, I know deep down it’s not for me. So for now, I’ll stick with my traditional ways, trimming the tree and opening gifts in front of the fire with my family. This is Christmas for me, and it’s how I like to celebrate it.


Friday, December 17, 2010

New Travel Sites I Love

As I was browsing through my Twitter feed this morning, I came across a tweet from Budget Travel talking about some of their favorite new travel websites of 2010. Among the sites featured, I came across two that really interested me.

The first one is called TripAlertz, a groupon-style website for travel deals. Everyday they feature a great hotel deal listed at an amazing price. The more people that purchase it, the lower the price gets. By the time the deal closes, the cost of the hotel can be half of the normal price. The great part is that membership is free. And after joining, you can earn trip cash--which can be applied to any deal you purchase--by inviting your friends and family to join. TripAlertz also offers the chance to win a trip by creating your own itinerary for a dream vacation. The more "likes" your trip gets, the better your chances of winning. I just submitted a trip today, so if you happen to be a member or plan on joining, go ahead and vote for me!

The other website I love is Wanderfly. A site that helps you find affordable trips that match your specific criteria and personality. You can search many different ways. A simple method is just entering your budget, home airport and date when you want to go, and Wanderfly instantly provides recommendations to match, with flight and hotel options, as well as the final budget posted in bold. For instance, I entered:
  • Home airport: Chicago
  • Budget: $1000/person
  • Date: Mid March
  • Length of Stay: 5 days
  • Place to Explore: Anywhere
I was recommended:
Santa Maria is a city in Santa Barbara County, on the Central Coast of California. While it contains all the amenities of an urban community with its hotels, theaters, museums and more, it still retains the charms of rurality with its sand dune beaches and famous wineries. Visitors are also always free to indulge in horse-riding, surfing, sunbathing, or simply driving off the beaten path and exploring numerous country roads dotted with farms, wineries and little towns.

It then gave me a reasonable round-trip flight and a hotel for a total of $824 for the whole trip. That's an extremely affordable trip, and it's one I would pick for myself. (Because anything with Northern California and wineries is a winner in my book.) It's also a place that I would have never considered before, and anything that opens me up to new experiences and destinations is certainly worth looking into.

You can also narrow down your search by choosing a theme or interest (i.e. casino, romance, eco, spa, party, etc.). You can select one or many, and results that match your criteria will appear. If you don't like the first selection, simply click the arrow next to "change trip" and the next destination will come up. After putting in "food" and "entertainment" in my search, I was given Saint Charles, Missouri. Since this is not really my scene, I saw what was next and it suggested San Sebastian, Spain. That's more like it.

I will definitely be frequenting these websites in the new year, and hopefully I've opened your eyes to the wonderful benefits they provide. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Exploring Bulgaria's Cultural Richness

Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007, but it wasn't until this week that Eurail added it to its network of travel destinations. The 2011 Global Eurail Pass will allow travelers to access the Eastern European country through the Bulgarian State Railways. Representatives of the Eurail Group are eager to expand their reach and tap into the tourism sector that has been consistently growing over the last decade. Visitors can now explore the ever increasing allure of Eastern Europe through Bulgaria's train system, taking in the vast culture and sprawling landscape of the "Country of Roses."

With a history that dates back all the way to the first antiquity--that's the 1st millenium BC, to put it in perspective--the Bulgarians have had a major role in cultural development, philosophy, agriculture, language and social structure. After spending years under foreign rule, including Alexander the Great and the Romans, Bulgaria established its first empire. It grew significantly as a military power, introduced the first code of law, created the Cyrillic Alphabet and grew into a strong Christian country. The empire slowed due to numerous wars, eventually falling and being conquered by the Byzantine Empire in 1018. It was not until 1185 that Bulgaria had an uprising and succeeded in reestablishing their empire. The Ottomans would eventually seize power over the Bulgarians, and the population suffered from oppression and misgovernment under the Turks. As a result, their culture became separated from the rest of Europe. Throughout five centuries of Ottoman rule, the Bulgarians attempted many revolts, and were finally successful with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Bulgaria was proclaimed an independent state in 1908. After that, Bulgaria began to takes steps to reconnect with Western Europe. Communism was still the main form of government up until the late nineties, early two-thousands, but now Bulgaria is seen as "free."

With the fall of communism and an increased desire to promote tourism, Bulgaria has slowly become a must-see destination in Eastern Europe. And with just one glance at the country's landscape, it's understandable why. The geographic diversity of Bulgaria allows tourists to see snow-capped peaks, beautiful beaches and sprawling plains all in one country. Not only is the natural environment appealing, but the ancient buildings, intricate architecture and traditional sites have drawn millions to Bulgaria's borders. The Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar influences can be seen through collected artifacts, and some of the most iconic pieces include the Thracian treasures, intricately crafted objects that were buried both to hide them during controversial times and for ceremonial purposes. The more famous excavations of these ornate gold and silver items are the Panagyurishte gold treasure (on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia),the Rogozan treasure (known as the find of the century with over 165 pieces discovered) and the Valchitran gold treasure (shown at the National Archeological Museum in Sofia).

Visitors to Bulgaria are fascinated by the county's ancient ancestors, so it's understandable that the many immaculate tombs on display are some of the most popular attractions. Kazanluk, referred to as the valley of the roses, became extremely popular when new tombs were discovered there in the nineties. The Sveshtari Tomb, arguably one of the finest tombs discovered in Bulgaria, dates back to the 3rd century BC and appears to be the resting place of a Thracian ruler. Thracian Tomb tours are available through BG Travel, and consist of a 5-day package of all the best tombs in the country.

Bulgaria ranks third--behind Greece and Italy--in number of archeological and historical monuments. Apart from the tombs, Bulgaria is full of crumbling fortress walls and forums, temples, amphitheaters, stadiums and monuments. Among these locations is Tsarevets, a medieval stronghold in northern Bulgaria that served as the primary fortress during the second empire. Another noteworthy site is Ledenika, a cave in the Balkan Mountains. The cave contains 10 separate halls, the largest being the concert hall accessible only through the Passage of Sinners, designated only for those whose heart is pure. If you dip your hand into the ice-cold water of the small pool in the cave, known as the Lake of Wishes, and make a wish, that wish is sure to come true. In an effort to promote tourism to these sites and many others, the country created a booklet called "100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria." It can be purchased at any tourist union center and costs 1 lev (or 0.67 cents).

Bulgarian cuisine is extremely diverse thanks to the warm climate and rich soil. Every meal is served with a salad, which, more often than not, is made with a Bulgarian White Brine Cheese called Sirene. Most dishes are oven baked, steamed or stewed--fried is not an option--and any kind of meat is grilled. Pork dominates Bulgarian food, but many other meat varieties can be found in popular dishes, like Gyuvetch (a beef and vegetable stew). The Bulgarians are known to create quality dairy products, including yogurt, which is said to have originated in Bulgaria. Tourists should not miss out on a traditional pastry called Banitsa, made by layering whisked eggs, sirene cheese and filo pastry and then baking it. As far as drinks go, natives usually turn to Bulgarian Wine to accompany their meals--such as Mavrud, Muscat and Gamza--but Rakia, a fruity liquor, and Mastika are popular options, too.

With all that Bulgaria has to offer, it's difficult to know where to start. I recommend beginning your journey with a few days spent in the capital city of Sofia. Located in western Bulgaria, at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, Sofia sits quaintly in a large valley, surrounded by mountains. Among the city's attractions are the National Historic Museum, The Museum of Earth and Men, the Sofia City Art Gallery, the Sofia Zoological Garden, Boyana Church, and much more. You can relax in one of the public mineral baths or catch a soccer game at Vasil Levski National Stadium. There is plenty to keep you occupied during the day, and even more to do at night. Sofia has an exciting nightlife with plenty pf clubs, pubs, restaurants and mehani--traditional Bulgarian taverns. With Sofia's well-developed bus, tram and trolleycar transportation system, it's easy to get from place to place. The underground still needs work, so it's best to rely on walking or other means of transport. After experiencing Bulgaria's capitol, feel free to venture wherever you want. No matter if you head up into the mountains to ski or out to the beaches to lay in the sun, Bulgaria provides you with a truly great getaway.

So when you're planning your next big trip abroad, and Europe seems like a top contender on your destination list, think about taking advantage of Eurail's passes and taking a relaxing train ride to Bulgaria. You certainly won't be disappointed with this cultural gem.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The People You Meet at Airports

I stood in the security line at O’Hare Airport today, which was much longer than it usually is—at least when I’ve traveled through there. Normally, I keep to myself, shuffling along with the rest of the crowd. But today, a woman behind me in line made a relatively casual comment about the wait and a conversation was sparked. For the next fifteen minutes we chatted about where we were headed, where we were from, where we had traveled before, and for a moment I created a bond, a brief friendship that would disappear the second we went our separate ways. What astonishes me most about these quick encounters is how much they can impact us. Even though we will probably never see each other again, this woman and I shared parts of our lives with each other, which—in my opinion—is one of the amazing things about travel. Something about being in an airport with people who are experiencing the same things you are, dealing with the same lines, the same delays, makes you want to reach out and make a connection.

Though I didn’t catch her name, I know she lives in Wisconsin and is headed to Australia for a 30-day trek through the outback and then down into the mountains of New Zealand. Finally, a woman after my own heart. This is a trip I would die to take, and here was someone actually doing it; taking life by the reigns and going on an adventure. Not only that, but she was alone. (Well, she’s going with a tour group, but she didn’t have a spouse or friend with her.) To take a journey like that and have no close acquaintances can be scary and overwhelming, but excitement was all I could read on her face. If anything, it inspired me, gave me hope that someday I could do something like that.

After we scooted through security, we put our shoes back on and said our goodbyes. And while I know everyone says those generic things, like “take care,” “travel safe,” “good meeting you;” in this case it felt truly genuine and sincere. I had enjoyed meeting this incredible woman, and I walked off to my gate feeling a little happier that she had come into my life, if only for a moment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Take A Ski Trip

It's winter, and that means hitting the slopes--at least for some people. I happen to be one of those looking to get some serious time in on the mountain. With limited time off, it can be difficult to fit in a ski trip. Luckily, I was able to swing a little extra vacation time, and now I plan to carve through some powder with my friends in Colorado. Where we'll go, I'm not quite sure yet, but there are plenty of options for us to choose from. Personally, I love Keystone. It's where I learned to ski and snowboard, and my family owned a condo there for years. It's comfortable, and I know the terrain better than any other resort. However, I am open to going other places, and I'm sure Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek will be thrown out on the table. For me and my friends, it's an easy drive to the mountains, but for many it isn't as easy. If you have the time, and the money, I strongly suggest looking into a ski trip with family or friends. Even if you don't ski or snowboard, there's always the apres-ski to enjoy.

So where should you go? Town & Country Magazine has a helpful questionnaire in this month's issue that determines the right ski scene for you. They feature resorts all over the country and the world that provide various perks that suit every individual's needs. If you're more of a ski bunny looking for a nice dinner or cocktail, Aspen is an impressive town full of world-class restaurants and four-star hotels. Not only is the nightlife exciting, but the mountain offers its own thrills with 300 inches a year of fresh powder. Courchevel, France is full of Michelin-star restaurants, five-star hotels and countless spas. And after skiing any of its 93 slopes, you'll certainly want to relax with a nice martini or full-body massage.

For those more avid skiers and snowboarders, Park City, Utah is a local Western gem that has the country's only heated chairlift, as well as 4,000 acres of terrain. It's also nearby other resorts, so you can change things up. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is known for its beautiful scenery and exotic wildlife, but its also known for its adventurous backcountry. Visitors can blaze a trail on their own or hire a professional guide from the ski school, which ever they prefer. Abroad, head to Verbier, Switzerland, where the La Tzoumaz resort offers fast lifts, crazy back-runs and toboggan rides. Are, Sweden's Areskutan is a party day and night. Ski any of the 103 exciting runs during the day, and then socialize with other guests as you warm up in the hot tub accompanied by delicious schnapps.

If you can't find the time or cash to get away this year, and are looking for places close to home, there are a number of smaller ski hills around the East Coast and Midwest. For all you Chicagoans, check out Chestnut Mountain in Galena, Illinois, or Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, Michigan. Both of these locations have reasonable lift ticket prices and feature a decent number of slopes, plenty to keep you busy for a day. 

Whether you can spare a week or just a weekend, take the time this season to grab your skis or snowboard and head out on the snowy trails.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Windsor: A Big Player During Prohibition

On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put into effect, banning the selling, manufacturing and transporting of alcohol. So began the time of prohibition. After 13 controversial years of underground smuggling, heightened criminal activity and social unrest, the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing prohibition on December 5, 1933. In honor of that day, Chicago bars and pubs all over the city have been putting on repeal parties reminiscent of the jazzy speakeasies of the twenties and thirties. I had the pleasure of attending one of these parties on Friday night at a neighborhood joint called Faith & Whiskey. I never realized that the name had such a strong link to the prohibition era, and I received a very interesting history lesson that night.

Back when prohibition went into effect, the mafia began bootlegging, or rum-running, and started a profitable black market with illegal alcohol sales. Gangs would smuggle alcohol from Cuba, Mexico, France and Canada, creating high port and border traffic in a number

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of cities. Windsor, Canada was one of those cities. Home of the Windsor Distillery and Canadian Club Whiskey, Windsor had product that was in high demand from the thirsty Americans. One notorious gangster took full advantage of Windsor’s proximity to Detroit and the bootlegger-friendly environment of the Detroit River. Al Capone, owner and operator of all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago, took control of the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel and a large majority of the alcohol transportation through it. Through masterful strategies, Al Capone and Windsor’s Purple Gang successfully smuggled beer and whiskey across the border. One of their methods was using Bedford United Church, known then as Sandwich Methodist Church, as a way to signal across the River. If the lights in the bell tower were lit, it was clear sailing and they could go ahead with the transfer either through the tunnel or in boats. If the lights were out, it was not safe, and they would have to wait until a later night. Faith and whiskey.

Today, visitors to Windsor can visit this church as well as other prohibition related attractions around the city. They can take a tour of the Canadian Club Brand Centre to learn about the production of whiskey and get a tasting. Windsor is a truly special city, and apart from the rum-running history, it has a plethora of fun and exciting attractions. Visit the official tourism site to learn more about it.

In honor of the repeal of prohibition, let us raise a glass….

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holiday Happenings Around Chicago

After three, below-freezing days and the city's first snowfall--sort of--it seems winter has finally arrived, which is fitting since it is now officially December. Along with the drop in temperatures and the chance for flurries, December brings on the holiday spirit. (Although many people were probably in full holiday mode once the costumes were stowed away, the pumpkins were tossed and the candy was polished off.) For the rest of us who wait in anticipation for Thanksgiving to be over before decorating the Christmas Tree, December is the time when holiday cheer truly thrives and there are festivities and celebrations galore. Every city features weekly events like concerts, holiday markets, lighting events, parades, gift exchanges and parties, all accompanied by delicious food, warm drinks and fine spirits. So what's happening in the city of Chicago this holiday season? Read on to find out...
Vendor at Christkindlmarket

This annual German-themed market has been going strong since 1996. Set up downtown in Daley Plaza, Kristkindlmarket features traditional German vendors selling everything from handcrafted nutcrackers and blown-glass ornaments to knitted scarves and carved cuckoo clocks. That smell weaving its way through the market, tickling our nostrils and making us salivate is that of the fresh roasted almonds. The popular treat is coated in a variety of flavors like chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and honey. Apart from these addicting morsels, the market also serves a wide variety of German fare, like sauerkraut, bratwurst, potato pancakes, goulash and strudel. Head over to the beer hall and warm up with a boot-shaped mug of Glühwein, traditional spiced wine, or grab a stein of beer. Kids can enjoy rich hot chocolate from Dinkel's Bakery while they munch on the vendor's famous Stollen, German holiday cake. Christkindlmarket draws thousands of Chicagoans every year, providing a truly unique and memorable experience for them to share with friends and family.
Boots of Glühwein

Ice Skating in the Park
For a fun and physical holiday activity, visit any Chicago public park and skate around on their free ice rinks. (note: There is a fee for skate rentals.) Every year, the Chicago Park District opens outdoor skating rinks for locals to enjoy. The rink in front of Wrigley Field just opened yesterday, Dec. 1, and the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park has been open to the public late November. Bring the kids and skate around under the twinkling lights while holiday tunes blare over the loud speaker.

Caroling and Concerts
Festive music fills the air this time of year, and most of that comes from joyous carolers. To get a glimpse of these talented folks, head over to Cloud Gate (aka, the Bean) in Millennium Park every Friday evening in December to watch a different group perform some of your favorite holiday classics. Caroling at Cloud Gate invites everyone out to enjoy the musical talents of choral groups like the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, the Chicago Children's Choir, Wicker Park Choral Singers and Old Town School of Folk Music.

Carolers in Daley Plaza
There are a number of other concerts and shows that celebrate the holiday season. Check out the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker performances at Auditorium theater, going on between Dec. 10 and Dec. 26. The Goodman Theater features Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, while Miracle on 34th Street plays over at Porchlight Music Theater. For a mid-day treat, head over to City Hall at noon for the daily concert series held in the LaSalle side lobby.

Holiday Exhibits
All over the city, museums, galleries and attractions are setting up displays and exhibits in honor of the holiday season. The Museum of Science and Industry is showcasing their "Christmas Around the World" and ""Holidays of Lights" exhibits again this year. Over 50 trees decorated to represent different global cultures are spread out around the main level. Visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens to view nearly 750,000 lights twinkle throughout the makeshift winter wonderland. Visit Santa's House under the Picasso sculpture in the loop and tell Santa exactly what you want this year.

Tree in Daley Plaza
Everywhere you look this season, you'll be sure to find flamboyant holiday happenings. There are too many events, shows and activities for me to mention in this post, so be sure to check out neighborhood association or chamber of commerce websites. You can also visit the official site for the Chicago Office of Tourism to find out more about exciting ways to celebrate the holidays.