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The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival: Chicago's Favorite Holiday Tradition

Nov 18th, 2020

If you’ve lived in Chicago for any time longer than a year, then you may have heard of the Magnificent Mile Light Festival. It’s held every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and is one of the city’s oldest annual traditions, dating back to 1949. 

This year will mark the 29th year of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Although the live parade will be absent from this year’s celebrations, there will still be plenty of exciting performances along with the lighting of the trees. The festival is broadcast to over 90% of the country, so you can enjoy this Chicago tradition from wherever you may be!

So, if you live in our luxury Chicago apartments and are looking for a fun holiday tradition this year, here’s all you need to know about the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival!

Where is the Magnificent Mile?

Picture Fifth Avenue in New York City. It runs for 6 miles through Manhattan from Harlem all the way to Greenwich Village, and in addition to being one of the city’s major thoroughfares, it’s also one of the most expensive and upscale streets in the world. Major historical, cultural and commercial landmarks along the famed avenue include Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saks Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center. Some of the country’s finest and most elegant stores have Fifth Avenue addresses, and the street has become a synonym for luxury, elegance and high-end retail.

Well, the Magnificent Mile is Chicago’s version of Fifth Avenue. The Magnificent Mile, also known as The Mag Mile, is the eight-most expensive retail corridor in the United States, after New York and San Francisco retail areas. The 3.1 million square feet of prime-time real estate in downtown Chicago is occupied by the finest hotels, restaurants, museums and retail venues in the area, making this elegant district Chicago’s largest and most luxurious shopping district.

The Magnificent Mile district was first established in the 1920s after the Michigan Avenue Bridge opened up to commuters, creating a newly-accessible commercial district. The buildings constructed in this new district pushed the boundaries of height and style for the area, and when the district was properly re-vamped in the 1940s, the Mag Mile became one of the city’s most luxurious districts.

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

The Mag Mile has been Chicago’s most luxurious and high-end districts for decades, now, so it’s no surprise that there have been some great traditions born from this area’s rich (pardon the pun) history. One of those city traditions is the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, which is held every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It’s the third-largest parade in the United States after the Macy’s parade in New York City and the Rose Parade in Los Angeles.

Although this festival is now a major event in the nation, the tradition first came from a humble celebration over seventy years ago. Way back in 1949, The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association — now called The Magnificent Mile Association — erected a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with over 1,500 lights in the nearby Water Tower Park (just a 2 miles from our Printers Row Apartments in Downtown Chicago!). The festive tree was also topped with a whopping 6-foot-tall star.

As the years went by, stores along Michigan Avenue started decorating their storefronts with festive cheer during the holiday season. Saks Fifth Avenue started decorating the elm trees on the sidewalk in front of their store with Christmas lights in 1959, as did other high-end retailers like Tiffany, Armani, Gucci and Burberry in later years. As the district grew, so did the holiday tradition, and now the Magnificent Mile is famous for its festive decorations and holiday events. 

The Walt Disney Company became involved with the festival in 1992, lending their characters, costumes and trademarks to the grand tourist event. The company’s involvement made the festival’s popularity skyrocket.

Not only does the festival feature bright lights and festive decorations, but also a ceremonial parade that officially lights the grand Christmas tree each holiday season.

The parade features over 40 festively decorated floats and balloons led by none other than Grand Marshalls Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse themselves! Decked out in full Mr. and Mrs Claus garb, the two popular characters lead the glittering parade down Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to the Chicago River to end at the foot of the grand Christmas Tree. Characters such as Santa and Mrs. Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy have also regularly appeared in the parade. 

The last event of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is an impressive fireworks display along the banks of the Chicago River. The display signals both the end of the festival and the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season.

Although the parade isn’t going to be held this year due to the pandemic, the show, as they say, must go on! It’s not like Chicagoans to give up their traditions and city culture, so the festival will be held virtually this year and streamed on ABC 7 Chicago. There will be pre-recorded performances and a few surprises that Disney has yet to announce, and the holiday special will end with the lighting of the many trees that line the storefronts and sidewalks of Michigan Avenue. It’s sure to be an absolutely wonderful event, as always, even if it looks a little different this year. 

Whatever your holiday plans may look like this year, don’t miss out on this glittering Chicago tradition! Tune in to ABC 7 Chicago on Saturday, November 22 to watch your city’s favorite festival from the comfort of your own home! 


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/QueenCarolyn

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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