Magnificent Mile illuminates holiday season

Ted Thilman

Serenaded by more than a million twinkling white lights on 200 trees, Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile makes for a super-saturated holiday treat.

Chicago officially kicked off the season the Saturday before Thanksgiving with a parade down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago River at the “Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.” Waving his wand from the lead float, Mickey Mouse illuminated each tree, one by one, by waving his magic wand.

Every year at this time the downtown shopping district undergoes a facelift to attract people from all over the Chicago area. Most of the stores lining the Magnificent Mile assemble decorative window displays luring customers to their storefront. This year is no exception, with many retailers hoping to boost sales during the economic slowdown.

Some of the sights attracting shoppers this year include a new Nordstrom’s store at Michigan and Chicago avenues, the Christmas tree display at the John Hancock Center and a controversial Harry Potter exhibit at the Marshall Fields at the corner of Grand Avenue.

The Potter exhibit drew an immediate response from some shoppers, who accused the store of being anti-Christian for displaying magic spells, flying brooms and wizards as its symbols of the holidays. Controversy aside, Fields’ 11 windows full of Potter-mania are an elaborate, unique display.

The Magnificent Mile’s store windows can’t be beat in the suburbs, said Lesley Bates, a 22-year-old high school teacher in Lincoln Park.

“Shopping in the city is so much more fun and festive than just walking around a mall,” Bates said. “My favorite part is definitely walking into a cozy, warm store after window-shopping outside for a really long time.”

For hot food on a cold night, Marshall Field’s Walnut Room is a traditionally popular place to eat during the shopping season, made especially festive with a 45-feet-tall Christmas tree. Patrons can shop while they wait (sometimes for more than two hours) for a table, and the host pages them when their table is ready.

But more frugal holiday shoppers should know that if they’re not careful, a trip to the Magnificent Mile could burn a magnificent hole in their pockets. Shoppers readily admit that by shopping on Michigan Avenue they have to pay an ambience tax, which means marked-up prices in many stores as well as expensive food and parking — if you can find it.

“This isn’t for the average Joe,” said David Van, 39, who works security at the 900 N. Michigan building. “I can’t afford it, so I just stick to Target and JCPenney for my Christmas shopping.”

And when asked about his favorite part of the holiday season in Chicago, Van, who works extra hours over the busy holiday season, responded simply, “When it’s over,” followed by a friendly laugh.

Even with his longer hours, Van still says this is the best time to be in Chicago.

“All the lights and people and the magic just puts everyone in a good mood, and it makes you glad that you’re in Chicago for the holidays,” said Van, who lives in the southwest part of the city.

“I mean, just look around” he said as his eyes wandered over to group of laughing kids, bundled up with their parents watching the lights parade.