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Winter Lights Illuminate The Season

Nov 30, 2021 ● By Carrie Jackson
Tree all lit up

Photo courtesy of The Morton Arboretum Illumination at The Morton Arboretum, in Lisle

Light festivals at some of Chicagoland’s most prominent attractions bring families and friends together to embrace the darker days, get outside and share holiday experiences. Our area zoos and gardens offer extraordinary backdrops to highlight the beauty of nature in the winter. All exhibits require tickets to be purchased in advance and are adhering to current COVID-19 protocols.

“Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum is a completely unique experience that visitors won’t see anywhere else,” says Tari Marshall, head of public relations and social media at The Mortem Arboretum. “This is the ninth year we’ve done Illumination, and there are families that have made it part of their holiday tradition to come every year,” she adds.

The exhibition leads guests along a one-mile, paved walking path with lighting effects and festive music. “The trees are the stars of the show, and the exhibit highlights their beauty in the winter,” explains Marshall. After shifting to a drive-through exhibit last year because of COVID, the Arboretum has added five new features, including a festival of lanterns and an enchanted gateway entrance. The trails are accessible and offer fireside warming stations, beverages and snacks along the way. Illumination runs through January 2.

Zoolights, at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago, is a family-friendly event in the heart of the city that has been a holiday tradition for 27 years. “With nearly 200 species, there’s an opportunity for folks to connect with animals—whether it’s braving the cold with polar bears or cozying up alongside Jamaican iguanas in the rainforest ecosystem,” says Jillian Braun, director of public relations and communications at the zoo. The zoo is illuminated with dazzling LED lights, dynamic displays and festive activities. “There is something for everyone, whether it’s annual photos with Santa, sipping a hot chocolate at Snowy’s Spirits and S’more popup bar or wandering through the Light Maze,” says Braun. Zoolights runs through January 2, and the exhibit is free on Monday and Tuesday.

Lightscape at the Chicago Botanic Garden Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden

Lightscape, at the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Glencoe, is a festive opportunity to enjoy the beauty of being outdoors while celebrating the season. Now in its third year, visitors will be amazed by the exciting new installations and features that shine with all colors imaginable along the mile-and-a-quarter path. “The enchanting, illuminated trail was created just for the Garden and features installations from Chicago-based and international artists alike,” says Jodi Zombolo, associate vice president, visitor events and programs at the Garden. Highlights include a laser show, playful musical trees and the favorite Winter Cathedral. Lightscape runs through January 2.


Photo courtesy of Brookfield Zoo

With more then 2 million lights, Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo, in Brookfield, is Chicagoland’s longest-running lights festival. It features larger-than-life illuminated animal sculptures, a 600-foot tunnel of lights and a skating rink made of synthetic plastic so no electricity is needed to maintain it. Visitors can also play the Game of Gnomes by searching for 27 gnomes hidden throughout the zoo. “Several new features have been added to this year’s event, including the ‘Sea of Lights’. Featuring more than two miles of colorful, sparkling lights, the zoo’s entire West Mall will be transformed into a magical creation of waves immersing guests in the holiday spirit,” says Leah Rippe, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chicago Zoological Society. Holiday Magic runs on select dates through December 31.

Exposure to light during the darkness of winter can be healing when the days are so short, and the unconventional settings of zoos and gardens allow people to make nature part of their holiday traditions. “These aren’t traditional Christmas lights, it’s an immersion in a light experience,” says Marshall.
Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Chicago magazine. Connect at