Chicagoans Share Their Favorite Holiday Traditions

Chicagoans' Favorite Holiday Traditions

The way you and yours spend the holidays are the moments that define you as a family. And while some customs are passed down for generations, others are borrowed by friends, neighbors, and even strangers. To see how Chicago celebrates — and, perhaps, inspire new ways to toast the season in your own homes — we asked our powerful nonprofit partners, community leaders, and, of course, our Make It Better family to share some of the ways they experience this magical time of year.

Susan Becker

Advertising Account Executive, Make It Better

“My two kids, Chloe and Bobby, always tease me for putting a new toothbrush in their stockings every year. My mom did it for me and my sister, so I’m just passing along the tradition!”

Anna Carlson

Digital Managing Editor, Make It Better

“Every Christmas, my parents give me and my siblings an ornament that relates to something that happened that year (last year’s was, of course, a Cubs World Series ornament). Now we each have a collection of ornaments for our own trees, which are filled with memories.”

Julie Chernoff

Dining Editor, Make It Better

holiday traditions: Julie Chernoff

“Every December, my family hosts our annual Latkefest, complete with 30 pounds of brisket (I’m from the chili sauce shtetl), 15 pounds of ‘brisketized’ turkey breast, four big kugels, 300 potato latkes, and much more. It is cholesterol and carb insanity; I recommend our friends wear stretch pants, it’s only prudent. I used to make the latkes myself for many years, but sanity prevailed about 10 years ago and now I leave that task to Trader Joe’s freezer case. The key is to get them extra-crispy on the outside, plus lots of sour cream and apple sauce. Yum!”

Fr. Scott Donahue

President and CEO, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls

holiday traditions: Fr. Scott Donahue

“When I was a boy, Christmas always meant going to church as a family and having a meal together, and then we’d open presents. As a kid, my favorite memory was the year we all received different play animals to sit on. Today, my favorite traditions are the ones we share with our Mercy Home family. I especially love gathering at Mercy Home during the Christmas season with all of our young people, coworkers, board members, and invited guests for the annual lighting of our Christmas tree, which we have been doing for 25 years. Most of those years we have been fortunate to welcome a visit from Mayor Daley or Mayor Emanuel. The best thing about this tradition is when our young people read aloud from a special ‘Book of Service’ in which they describe the community service projects that they have been involved in throughout the year to enhance our city and the lives of the poor. They make sandwiches for the homeless, visit the elderly, send cards to our service men and women overseas, hold clothing and food drives, and much, much more. Afterward, they present the ‘Book of Service’ to the Mayor or a representative of the city as Mercy Home’s Christmas gift to the people of Chicago.”

Reverend William A. Evertsberg

Senior Pastor, Kenilworth Union Church

holiday traditions: Reverend William Evertsberg

“I’m a preacher, so Christmas Eve is a fraught and hectic day — Kenilworth Union Church has five services, the first at 11 a.m. and the last at 11 p.m. When my kids were little, they complained that they never saw their father on the day that is renowned for being all about family and home. So on the year of my daughter’s fifth Christmas, I made a deal with her and her older brother that when I got home after the last service, I would stay up with them to watch ‘Home Alone.’ Sometimes we watch the Chicago ‘Home Alone,’ and sometimes we watch the New York ‘Home Alone,’ and sometimes we even watch ‘Love, Actually,’ but it’s always a contemporary classic Christmas movie. My kids are 29 and 25 now, and the tradition has never once been forsaken.”

Colleen Flanigan

Chief Marketing Officer, Auditorium Theatre

holiday traditions: Colleen Flanigan

“I am originally from a suburb of Detroit, and every year I go home and go to the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving game with my dad. The Lions play every Thanksgiving, and my dad has been going since he was a kid. In our family, the tradition started with my brother while I stayed home with my mom to make Thanskgiving dinner. As I became an enthusiastic football fan myself — and not much of a cook — my dad started to bring me to games. We have probably been to at least 25 games together — and have welcomed the Chicago Bears a few times as well!”

Anthony Freud

General Director, President and CEO, Lyric Opera of Chicago

holiday traditions: Anthony Freud

“Having moved from the UK to the U.S. 11 years ago, my husband Colin and I are very settled and at home here, and there are not too many British traditions that we feel nostalgic about. However, over Christmas we always listen to two radio broadcasts that, happily, we can now stream online from BBC Radio 4. One is the Ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast live from King’s College Cambridge. The other is The Queen’s Christmas message to the Commonwealth. With the time difference, both are at 9 a.m., on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, respectively. For us, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them.”

Joe Glunz

President, Glunz Wines

holiday traditions: Joe Glunz

“Each year, after going to the family Christmas Eve mass at St. John Berchmans, our family goes out to dinner downtown on Michigan Avenue. It’s always a small group — just the four of us and sometimes grandparents, too, if they’re visiting from out of town. Everyone is always dressed up and feeling festive and excited, and always take the long way so we can enjoy all the beautiful lights. After all of the parties and craziness leading up to the big day, it’s a great way to spend time together as a family and kick off our Christmas celebration!”

Henry Godinez

Resident Artistic Associate, Goodman Theatre

holiday traditions: Henry Godinez

“My wife, Nancy, and I, and daughters Lucy and Gaby, have a Christmas tradition of going to church on Christmas Eve, and then coming home, ordering a pizza, and cuddling up in front of the fireplace watching Christmas movies (‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ being a few of our favs). Then after the girls go to bed, Nancy and I stay up late wrapping presents and watching the old Alastair Sim ‘Christmas Carol’ movie, and reminiscing about the years that three of the four of us spent directing and performing in Goodman’s ‘A Christmas Carol!’”

Jennifer Green

Artistic Director, Piven Theatre Workshop

holiday traditions: Jennifer Green

“Piven Theatre Workshop, a multigenerational community arts organization where I am Artistic Director, chooses a theme each year around which to base all our work. This year’s theme is “Home”: a very special theme for us personally as we expanded our family through adoption two years ago. As we transition our family to include a boy born in China, we now transition our Christmas tree into a Lunar New Year tree to celebrate Teddy‘s cultural heritage and identity. Every year we find new ornaments honoring the year’s animal: monkey, rooster, and this year, our third year together, dog.”

Avery Hansen

Editorial Assistant, Make It Better

“One tradition that we have done for as long as I can remember is writing on the Christmas tree trunk. Every year my dad cuts off the bottom of the Christmas tree and me and my brothers write down our favorite present we received from Santa. Each tree trunk that we have saved sits in a large brass bowl by our fireplace so that when we go to add another trunk to the pile, we are able to read what we wrote throughout the years. It’s not only entertaining and hilarious, but it is also something that we share as a family!”

Kim Hoopingarner

Director of Advancement, Northlight Theatre

holiday traditions: Kim Hoopingarner

“Many years ago when our two oldest daughters were little (before our twins were born), my husband, Kirk, and and I came downstairs all dressed up in formal wear on Christmas Eve. The girls both got upset thinking we were going out without them, and we explained we had this very special thing to go to — Christmas Eve dinner, with them! We’ve done it ever since — Kirk in the same tux (which is much tighter now), and various boyfriends of our four daughters have been required to play along. It’s the black tie event of the year.”

Dolores Kohl

President and CEO, Dolores Kohl Education Foundation

“Our holiday times are family times — times that we pray together at synagogue and later celebrate at festive feasts lighting candles, reciting blessings on the wine and challah bread, reading passages, singing, storytelling, savoring traditional foods, and going around the table so each of us can share what we are thankful for. The children love singing traditional songs, accompanied by Papa’s guitar; decorating the holiday table and performing rituals like dipping apples in honey to celebrate a sweet year; winning a prize for finding matzah at Passover; or lighting candles for eight days during Hanukkah.

And whether it is eating challah bread on the Sabbath, potato latkes for Hanukkah, and matzah for Passover, our children have grown to realize the importance of special foods for each holiday. Recipes for Jewish holiday food have been handed down from generation to generation and I make the same gefilte fish, blintzes, chicken soup with matzah balls, and honey cake that my grandmother and mother made.

Our rituals and traditions remind the children that they are part of a long, Jewish history that defines our past, shapes who we are today and who we are likely to become.”

Sharon Krone

Secretary/Treasurer and Executive Director, Make It Better Foundation

holiday traditions: Sharon Krone

“I married into a Danish family with lots of holiday traditions. Every Christmas Eve we have a beautiful feast with roasted goose, cabbage, poached apples, caramelized potatoes, and rice pudding — complete with a prize to the diner whose dollop includes the whole almond hidden in the bowl. We also set aside an afternoon at my in-laws’ home during Advent to trace delicate angels on vellum paper, fold three dimensional Danish stars out of thin strips of red, white, or silver paper, and of course, enjoy plenty of warm aebleskiver with powdered sugar and lingonberry preserves!”

Brooke McDonald

Editor in Chief, Make It Better

holiday traditions: Brooke McDonald

“My family loves to travel, and we always make sure to pick up an ornament as a souvenir. We put up two Christmas trees every year and one of them is the ‘travel tree.’ We love to unpack the ornaments and reminisce about our trips, from pre-kid European adventures to countless Disney vacations with our two young sons.”

Michelle Morris

Publisher, Make It Better

holiday traditions: Michelle Morris

“On the day after Thanksgiving, my kids wake up to matching flannel pajamas next to their beds. We’ve been doing it for 18 years now, and the themes are always different. When they were little, it was all Christmas trees and snowflakes and zoo animals, but as they got older we got into themes: New Trier for their first year of high school, Nantucket whales to commemorate our awesome summer vacations, Blackhawks for the year we won the cup, and Cubs last year for the series. Every year, we bundle up in our new PJs, pile into the car, and go get our tree while drinking hot cocoa and listing to Christmas music. It’s the best!”

Susan B. Noyes

Founder, Make It Better

holiday traditions: Susan Noyes

“Hands down, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s just about cooking and being with the ones I love best. Every family member and guest at our Thanksgiving table has to contribute something they love and made themselves, which allows me to spend lots of one on one time in the kitchen with my kids.”

Mark Schmeltzer

Director of Communications, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls

holiday traditions: Mark Schmeltzer

“Every year, our kids take a ride on a horse-drawn carriage and get their picture taken with Santa Claus at our town’s Christmas festival. They also love taking the ‘Polar Express’ train on the Rock Island Metra and going to the Museum of Science and Industry to see the trees in the ‘Christmas Around the World’ exhibit. On Christmas Eve, we watch our oldest perform in the children’s Christmas pageant at Mass — he’s usually a shepherd. Then we give both of our boys a new set of winter pajamas, put them to bed, and wait for St. Nick!”

Cara Sullivan

Print Managing Editor, Make It Better

holiday traditions: Cara Sullivan

“Since my parents moved to Florida a few years ago, we’ve been spending Christmas there with them. One year, my oldest asked how Santa would know where we’d be. Our answer: He’s just magical! (But it got us thinking…) A few days later, a letter from Santa appeared in the mailbox. He said he knew we weren’t going to be home for Christmas, but since Reeve and Vaughn had been such good girls, he was going to swing by a few days early with a big present he couldn’t possibly carry all the way to Florida. On Dec. 20, they woke up to find a big wrapped dollhouse next to the tree — talk about magical. Ever since then, the jolly old elf has made a pre-Christmas pit stop at our house with one special gift.”

Reverend Monsignor Kenneth Velo

Senior Executive of Catholic Collaboration, DePaul University; President, Big Shoulders Fund

“As a Catholic priest, Christmas is a time to gather as family and be grateful for what we have. After celebrating mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church, I go home to offer mass on Christmas Eve to about 30 family members, including my 99-and-a-half-year-old mother!”

Jennifer Woolford

Strategic Events, Make It Better

“Good friends of ours have the most amazing tradition: They keep all their holiday cards in a basket on the kitchen table, and every night until all the cards are gone, they pick one family from the pile and talk about them — how they met, the fun times they’ve had, and anything else that comes up. Then they say a prayer for them together. Sometimes it’s old friends that the kids don’t even know, which makes it really fun.”

Feature photo by Mira on Unsplash.


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Cara Sullivan is Make It Better’s Print Managing Editor. She has held positions at Cosmopolitan, Allure, and Martha Stewart Weddings magazines, and writes for many national and local publications. Sullivan lives in Ravenswood Gardens with her husband and two young daughters, and is a passionate supporter of Indivisible Chicago, a grassroots organization that focuses on direct actions that small, local groups can take to influence their representatives in Washington.