By Evan Solochek
As autumn quietly fades into winter and morning frost starts to take hold, Milwaukee holiday cheer abounds. Lights illuminate Wisconsin Avenue, snow blankets Lake Park in peaceful starkness. And if you can push past the madness of shopping, working late to “get ahead” before your never-long-enough holiday weekend and the chaos of too many over-planned days, there’s real joy to be found in the season. Milwaukee has its share of mall Santas and giant holiday shopping expos, but we’re also steeped in some wonderful traditions that reflect the finer character of our city and its residents.
Any holiday excursion in Milwaukee simply must begin with the official Holiday Lights Festival. This impressive exhibit includes roof and street level lights, along with animated displays at Cathedral Square Park, Pere Marquette Park and Zeidler Union Square. Downtown ablaze with holiday lights is truly a stunning kickoff to the holiday season.
Almost nothing is more perfectly symbolic of the best winter has to offer, more the incarnation of a Norman Rockwell painting, than ice skating outdoors. While Red Arrow Park, located on busy Water Street downtown, may not be a frozen pond in the backyard of a whitewashed farm house, it still offers – at no charge if you have your own skates – one of winter’s most beloved pastimes. Conveniently, the Slice of Ice sits in front of, and shares space with, Starbucks, so bring a few bucks and pop for some cocoa for the kiddies or that special someone.
Afterwards, venture over to the Milwaukee County Zoo and explore its Winter Wonderland. Stroll among the tranquil, snow-capped trees with the animals, enjoy live music, make holiday crafts and even take a hayride “From Africa to Antarctica.”
Not to be outdone, the Historic Third Ward offers its own holiday celebration December 2 and 3. Bathed in the majesty of Milwaukee’s most storied neighborhood, there will be a tree lighting, fireworks and the de rigueur appearance by Ol’ Saint Nick himself. After all is said and done, any one of the elegant Third Ward restaurants is the perfect place to warm up with a late dinner and a drink.
Ever wonder how the holidays looked at the end of the 19th century? For a trip to Yuletide days of yore, travel to the Pabst Mansion where its nationally recognized annual Christmas display returns with “Christmas Memories of the Past.” Every room is decorated with exquisite holiday antiques, most notably Elsbeth’s room, the site of “Dear Santa, Please Bring Me: 100 years of Children’s Toys 1870-1970.” From paper dolls to board games, this Victorian mansion will be full of holiday treasures sure to stir up some of your own personal memories.
If that doesn’t satisfy your thirst for holiday history, head over to Old World Wisconsin, the state’s largest outdoor museum. Crossroads Village hosts “Spirit of Christmas Past” and “Winter Lamplight,” two exhibits that chronicle Wisconsin holiday life at the turn of the 20th century. Located on 576 acres of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, these exhibitions offer a unique, real-life account of the earliest Wisconsin holiday traditions.
For modern holiday elegance, visit the downtown Wyndham Milwaukee Center for its Festival of Trees. Dozens of conifers will be beautifully decorated and on display in the lobby, for visitors to view and vote for their favorite. On December 6, the trees will be auctioned off with all proceeds benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Milwaukee
Twinkling lights and tinseled trees aside, as the holidays approach, the minds of Milwaukeeans inevitably turn to the less fortunate. While the charitable opportunities are endless, especially this time of year, Toys for Tots aims for the most fundamental of childhood desires – to open a present on Christmas morning. While toys may seem outside the realm of “need,” no one can downplay the significance of a child’s happiness and the memories created around receiving a special gift. And for your donation of a new toy or $5, you can eat breakfast with Santa on December 3 at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. What could be more in tune with the spirit of the holidays that bringing a smile to the face of a child? Enjoy, and happy holidays. VS