These days, the main floor of the Museum of Science and Industry is a little bit like a Christmas tree lot, but without the smell of evergreens, the giant ball of twine or the sketchy dude in the Carhartt jacket. In a long-running holiday tradition, the museum's "Christmas Around the World" has more than 50 faux Christmas trees set up, decorated to represent more than 50 countries around the globe — no matter what proportion of their populations actually celebrates Christmas.
Meanwhile, to the west, the lights are about to go on Friday on "Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum," the arboretum's stellar new addition to the region's luminescent holiday offerings.
Building on the spectacle's success — it drew 88,000 people in 2013, its first year — the dramatic arbor lighting showcase delivers more lights and new features, including a stunning sort of mini-Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, along its milelong outdoor path.
These are the first two seasonal lights displays on the area calendar. But as befits a region boasting more than 8 million people and a steady supply of electricity, there are several more big ones soon to turn on.
Each of them has a constituency for whom it is a favored holiday tradition. The decisions on which one people attend can be ruled by taste, by price, by location, by time (the outdoor ones take place in evening hours) or by the greatest determinant of how people spend their time, inertia. If you've always gone to Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights, you'll probably go to ZooLights again.
We'll give starting dates and ticket prices below, but be sure to check the institutions' websites because some run on weekends only and because all the places host ancillary holiday events throughout the season intended to give attendance a jolt that wattage alone cannot provide.
These include Santa visits, musical performances, beer and wine tastings and more. (Also check Groupon and Living Social for discount tickets.)
Museum of Science and Industry
Open since Nov. 13, "Christmas Around the World" can be pictured by imagining all of the ornaments for sale at downtown Chicago's Christkindlmarket actually put on trees.
Having done it for 73 years now, the museum has it down. It invites representatives from various nations around Chicago to decorate their country's tree.
The results range from traditional to whimsical. The Belgian tree boasts actual dried waffles, while the Canadian one has hockey skates. In the center of the main-floor rotunda, the 45-foot-tall Grand Tree is all ice blue and gold. A big cutout of Mickey Mouse — featured in a traveling Walt Disney exhibition adjacent — is up on a ladder in a decorating position.
Tucked in a gallery is "Holidays of Light," a concurrent display that covers non-Christian bases by paying brief homage, via display cases, to other year-end traditions, including Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year.
The holiday gift shop in the middle of the tree forest sells lots of ornaments but also — perhaps in anticipation of the Lucas Museum coming to town — holiday nutcrackers in the guises of Yoda, Darth Vader, C-3PO and a stormtrooper. Collect the whole set?
Although the event is indoors, it does manage to have snow — actually, a sort of soap flake — fall every half hour at the rotunda's north edge.
Through Jan. 4 at 57th St. and Lake Shore Drive; $11-$18 at 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org
Beginning Friday, "Illumination" will again combine cutting-edge lighting display with the beauty of the stately trees in the west suburban nature park.
The event casts the trees almost as actors on a grand stage, illuminating them sometimes with musical accompaniment, sometimes using the trees as a screen to project images onto. In one spot chandeliers shine above a forest floor.
New this year is "Symphony of Light," where the lights are synchronized with Chicago Symphony Orchestra music. It's an aural and visual feast; four- to five-minute CSO recordings emit from speakers set up amid trees on a gentle hillside, almost a natural amphitheater. Each piece represents one of the four seasons, and the lighting not only highlights that but delineates specific tree areas as parts of the orchestras. The brushes to the left, for example, are the strings.
In addition to more music this year, there are more kid-friendly experiences (translation: buttons to push to make lights change), even more forest chandeliers and more warming stations along the route. There's also a new lighting display in the central Meadow Lake that can be enjoyed through the windows of the Visitor Center, for attendees who would have a hard time walking the outdoor path.
"We want this to become a beloved tradition for families, but we want there to be something different every year," said John Featherstone, a principal in the firm Lightswitch and the attraction's lighting designer.
In general, he said, there are about 25 percent more lighting fixtures than last year with more light along the pathways between the various set pieces.
Amid positive feedback last year, he said, "One word captured the sense of what people wanted: more. It was, more lights, more color, a more immersive sense."
But a preview look Tuesday suggested the goal of more was achieved without sacrificing the display's subtlety and stateliness.
As Featherstone said, "It's not just throwing mud at the wall."
Through Jan. 3 at 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; $17 (adults) at 630-719-2066 or mortonarb.org
Coming Nov. 28, the Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express festoons the north suburban park with 750,000 LEDs. It, too, illuminates some tree trunks and it dresses up a giant evergreen, visible across North Lake, like a Christmas tree.
The seasonal expression continues with holiday wreaths in the Greenhouse Gallery and a highlight for many, the elaborate model trains.
Oh, and did we hear "North Pole"? Almost.
The "North Pool of Krehbiel Gallery," according to a news release, is the place to find a model train in an English country setting.
Through Jan. 4 at 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe; $12 (adults) at 847-835-5440 or chicagobotanic.org
Lincoln Park Zoo
The bedazzling "ZooLights" has two great advantages: It's set amid a high population density, which means you can reach it by public transport, and it won't cost you even one red cent.
Celebrating its 20th year of making a cold walk in the park a lot more enjoyable, the zoo's festival of lumens (2 million lights!) begins Nov. 28.
But the place can get crowded, which is why the zoo smartly rewards those good citizens who buy a Lincoln Park Zoo membership with the Dec. 4 members-only night at "ZooLights."
One of the great apes sets up shop in the Helen Brach Primate House; his name is Santa Claus. Also of note is the zoo's ice-skating rink, which opens for its second season on Nov. 28 (and charges $5, plus $5 for skate rental).
Through Jan. 4 at 2200 N. Cannon Drive; free, 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org
"Holiday Magic" is similar to "ZooLights," a barrage of bulbs decorating the animal park, but there are fewer chances to see it. It doesn't start until Dec. 6, it's only open weekends and Christmas week, and it ends before the new year.
But it's also the granddaddy of the outdoor displays, marking its 33rd year. And in the great light-bulb arms race, it claims "more than 1 million" of the glowing things.
The event includes ice carving, Santa in a village, a model train and a 38-foot-tall talking tree.
Through Dec. 31 at 8400 31st St., Brookfield; $15 (adults) at 708-688-8000 or czs.org