How to spend a secular Christmas in Chicago

Downtown Chicago from the lake front. Photo: J. Crocker

Some of my happiest holiday memories come from celebrating Christmas Eve with my Jewish family. I think of piling in the back of the minivan after dinner to tour the glittering fantasia of lights in Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood; of my dad’s ringing, appreciative laugh every time he watches the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” scene in “Elf”; of my synagogue cantor grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, leading carols by the pool at her Florida condo.

I’ve found that Christmas Day, though a little more laid back, offers wonderful possibilities, from extravagant dim sum feasts with friends to a leisurely afternoon at the movies. There’s time to stroll around, absorbed in the dreamy lights, and enjoy the beauty of downtown Chicago on a day where the city is a little quieter.

Here’s what I’d do on Christmas Day if you don’t celebrate Christmas.

Restaurants open in Chicago on Christmas Day

-Sun Wah BBQ

The Beijing Duck feast at Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown is an ambitious undertaking, but a must if you’ve got a few friends. The crispy-skinned bird is carved tableside with steamed gua bao, garnishes and a thick, sweet house-blended hoisin. As if that’s not enough, the remainder of the duck gets repurposed in a mountain of fried rice and rich duck-broth soup.

-In Chinatown: MCCB, Ken Kee, Chiu Quon Bakery

Chicago’s Chinatown is always bustling on Christmas Day. Try MCCB (Modern Chinese Cook Book) for Sichuan specialties like mapo tofu or a whole grilled fish prepared one of four ways (garlic, numb spicy, Chinese sour pickle or Malaysian satay). Ken Kee excels at soul-warming Hong Kong-style cart noodles and congee.

If by some festive miracle, you still have room after lunch, stop by Chiu Quon Bakery for sweet-and-savory BBQ pork packed into pillowy buns.

-Milt’s BBQ For the Perplexed

For Kosher comfort food, head to Lakeview and Milt’s BBQ For the Perplexed. The 16-hour smoked brisket is the star; you can get it chopped and piled high on a pretzel bun, mixed into a burger patty or paired with caramelized onions in an empanada. You should book in advance; Christmas Day tends to be one of their busiest.

-The Graystone Tavern

If you want to keep the night going, take a chilly 10-minute walk up Roscoe Street to the 8 Crazy Nights pop-up at the Graystone Tavern. A delightfully cheesy Hanukkah theme includes over-the-top treats like sufganiyot infused with strawberry vodka.

-Cherry Circle Room

For a more grown-up meal with a classy cocktail, the intimate, wood-paneled Cherry Circle Room at the Chicago Athletic Association will be offering a “greatest hits” a la carte menu Christmas Day. A roving bar cart dispenses barrel-aged bourbon Old Fashioneds to go with your beef tartare.

Where to see a movie in Chicago on Christmas Day

-Davis Theater

For more than a century, the Davis Theater in Chicago’s charming Lincoln Square neighborhood has welcomed neighbors for films, puppet shows, community meetings, parties and other events. An extensive renovation in 2016 restored its art deco glory, and now you can enjoy holiday blockbusters while munching on gourmet popcorn – including the iconic caramel-and-cheese “Chicago mix.”

-Music Box Theatre

If one lovingly preserved movie house isn’t enough for you, the iconic Music Box Theatre on Southport Avenue, just a few blocks away from Wrigley Field, gives old Hollywood drama with its towering welcome sign, ornate decor and heavy red curtain.

Get a jump on holiday releases and awards contenders alike, as the Music Box will be showing Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” and the Christian Bale thriller “The Pale Blue Eye” on Christmas Day.

Where to go sightseeing in Chicago on Christmas Day

-Maggie Daley Park

After taking the requisite reflective selfie at Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”) in Millennium Park, walk a couple blocks east to the adjacent Maggie Daley Park, where you can test your grace and balance at the Ice Skating Ribbon, open Christmas Day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. If you’re traveling with kids who need to burn off some more energy, the whimsical Play Garden will keep them busy with five unique play areas. That includes the Sea, which features a giant play ship, and the 12,000-square-foot Slide Crater.

-Lincoln Park Conservatory

If you’re looking for a more peaceful option outside of downtown, head north to the Lincoln Park Conservatory to warm up in the greenhouses and take in the beauty of “Sugar Plum,” their annual winter flower show. In addition to the vibrant installations inspired by the “Nutcracker,” you can explore the lush greenery of the Palm, Fern and Orchid Rooms, and forget for a second that you’re in the middle of a Midwest winter.

-Lincoln Park Zoo

Say hello to the red pandas, lions and other furry and feathered creatures at the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo, which is open and free 365 days a year.



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