Free holiday activities all around Chicagoland are spreading cheer this Christmas season. Maybe you want to plan a few special outings with your family, or perhaps you plan to fit in as many as your merry little heart can handle. Our Christmas bucket list full of free activities to keep your season jolly without extra expense! We’ve got ideas for free fun every day of the Advent season.
It’s still early, so we’ll be adding more opportunities for free fun as the season draws closer. In particular, be sure to watch out for our Best Christmas Lights in Chicagoland article, which will come out near the end of November with tons of destinations to see spectacular holiday lights displays.
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Free Christmas Bucket List for December 2023
Friday, December 1: Attend a Local Tree Lighting Ceremony
Start the month with a tree lighting ceremony! There are plenty going on today, including the Festival of Lights Opening Night and Kris Kringle Market in Bloomingdale, the Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony in Des Plaines, the Annual Christmas Walk & Tree Lighting in Hinsdale, the Holiday Tree Lighting in Bartlett, Snow Much Fun in Westmont, the Holiday Walk & Market in Clarendon Hills, the Village Tree Lighting in La Grange Park, the Christmas Walk in Geneva, and the Holiday Tree Lighting in Carol Stream.
Saturday, December 2: Visit a Live Nativity
Strollin’ to the Stable (Naperville) and Christmas Wonder – A Journey to Bethlehem (New Lenox) are both going on Saturday evening, bringing the Christmas story to life with live actors and family-friendly elements.
For more information on each event, as well as other live nativities throughout the area this season, check out our complete guide to live nativities hosted by Chicagoland churches.
Sunday, December 3: Go Homer for the Holidays in Homer Glen
Homer For The Holidays in Homer Glen will kick off with holiday crafts, hot cocoa, a Santa meet and greet, costumed characters, a Letters to Santa box for wish lists, and more. The lights display will also turn on in Heritage Park. If you can’t make the lighting, this is still a great free lights display to visit throughout the season.
Monday, December 4: See the Holiday Lights in Lombard’s Lilacia Park
The Holiday Lights in Lilacia Park are a local favorite annual holiday lights display with light shows, tree decorations, gingerbread houses, and more. If you’d like to make the outing extra special, you could make it a train trip on the Metra UP-West Line. The Lombard Metra Station is right across the tracks from Lilacia Park, and there are plenty of downtown restaurants nearby, too.
Tuesday, December 5: Judge the Gingerbread Houses
Colorfully crafted gingerbread houses are displayed in 40+ windows throughout downtown Downers Grove as part of this annual Gingerbread House Contest. Take a stroll through downtown and pick your favorites together!
Wednesday, December 6: Head to North Riverside’s Winterfest
Winterfest in North Riverside is lighting up the night with live music, a tree lighting, refreshments, and, of course, Santa Claus.
Thursday, December 7: Tree Lighting in Elmhurst
Elmhurst’s annual Tree Lighting in Wilder Park includes a visit with Santa or the Grinch, holiday music and games, and other family-friendly activities.
Friday, December 8: Enjoy a Winter Wonderland Event
At Winter Wonderland in Northlake, the park district is hosting a kid-friendly event with inflatables, crafts, family bingo, free hot dogs (while supplies last), and sleigh rides at the Grant Park Recreation Center. Meanwhile, Winter Wonderland in Lombard is a free, drop-in event at the YCPD Gym with games, face painting, Santa visits, and more. What a fun coincidence!
Saturday, December 9: Free Holiday Crafts for Kids
Kids can make some handmade holiday crafts for decorations or gifts at two local events. They’ll use natural materials at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Bolingbrook (advance registration required), or create vintage-style decorations at Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville (drop-in event).
Feeling like staying inside instead? Try one of Annie’s favorite Christmas crafts: paper snowflakes made from coffee filters. Fold the filters in half, and then in half again. Have fun cutting all sorts of shapes, then open to see your unique creation. If you want to take it a step further, color your coffee filter snowflakes with markers and spray with a water bottle. The end result looks tie-dyed!
Sunday, December 10: Jolly Jingle Fest at the Poplar Creek Public Library
The Jolly Jingle Fest in Streamwood is a free drop-in event with games for kids, photo ops, and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The My Cocina food truck will be onsite selling food, too.
Monday, December 11: Head to St. Charles for a Holiday Photo Op
St. Charles is planning a slew of special events for this holiday season. Check out the lighted photo opportunities set up by the Municipal Building to take some special snapshots with your crew, then stroll to see decorations all around downtown.
Tuesday, December 12: Explore Your Local Downtown
Chicago’s suburban downtowns lean into their historic roots during the Christmas season, decorating with lights and cheer to put visitors in a festive mood. Go window shopping together and see how your town is celebrating the season this year! Or, check out a nearby town you haven’t explored.
Wednesday, December 13: Enjoy the Nutcracker Ballet Together
Register in advance to partake in Nutcracker Night at the Indian Prairie Public Library in Darien, a creative event featuring a free showing of the filmed Nutcracker Ballet with light refreshments.
You could also cozy up and watch the ballet together at home! PBS has a free recording of the Hip Hop Nutcracker available to watch. Littles with shorter attention spans might be dazzled by clips like the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Thursday, December 14: Enjoy Merry Madness in Downers Grove
While this downtown event is primarily focused on shopping and dining specials at local businesses, everyone can enjoy the carolers who will be strolling around the city streets in the evening. You might even score a giveaway prize.
To make the most of this free event, we recommend combining the holiday ambiance with a trip to the Downers Grove Library, which is one of our favorite destinations for kids. In fact, our readers picked it as the number one library for kids in Chicagoland in our 2023 poll!
Friday, December 15: Flashlight Candy Cane Hunt
Register through the Bolingbrook Park District for an after-dark Flashlight Candy Cane Hunt in the James S. Boan Woods, with start times staggered by age.
You could also recreate this fun event at home. I have to be honest, I love any excuse to break out the plastic Easter eggs! Number them, fill them with mini candy canes, and hide them in the backyard for a wintry scavenger hunt. Big kids love a flashlight hunt, while little kids love any hunt.
Saturday, December 16
Register in advance for Campfire, Carols and Chestnuts at Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. You’ll enjoy hot cider, hot chocolate, and roasted chestnuts around a cozy campfire with carols.
This is another event you could do at home, too! A night of sing-a-long carols is a fun tradition that doesn’t take much to get started. Print out a few carols in advance so that everyone can follow along with the words, or queue up a playlist of songs. (Just be sure they’re in a sing-along friendly key. Not all of us can be Mariah Carey.)
Sunday, December 17: Go See Santa
Kids can give their wish lists right to St. Nick himself! Downtown Downers Grove hosts Complimentary Visits with Santa in a little gingerbread house on select Saturdays and Sundays at the corner of Main Street and Curtiss Street, while Downtown St. Charles plans to open Santa’s House on select weekends as well.
Looking for more dates? Our Free Photos with Santa list has the full scoop on where to take snapshots of the kids together with Santa all throughout the season.
Monday, December 18: Take a Tour of Neighborhood Lights Displays
Go on your own personal lights tour to see the amazing displays that our neighbors create. We make it easy in our list of the Best Christmas Lights Displays in Chicagoland with photographs, descriptions, and a map so you can plan your route. Bringing some Christmas cookies or warm cider in the car can help make the trip extra-special, too!
Residential lights displays usually start the day after Thanksgiving; our updated guide comes out around the same time.
Tuesday, December 19: See the Holiday Lights at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo is hosting free admission days every Monday and Tuesday from December 4 – December 19, 2023. As the season approaches, we’ll get more information on the zoo’s annual light display, which always dazzles!
This free activity has a bit of a caveat: Parking fees still apply at Brookfield, even on free admission day. (See their website for more information.) As of April 1, 2023, parking is now $17 at the North Gate and $20 at the South Gate.
It’s about a 10 minute walk from the Hollywood (Zoo Stop) on the BNSF Metra Line if you’d prefer to take the train instead. If you’re coming from north of the zoo, you might also be able to use Pace Bus Route 331, which drops off very close to the South Gate.
Wednesday, December 20: Gift Yourselves a Free Museum Day
If your kids are off school, it’s a great day to take advantage of local museum free days that you might not normally be able to swing.
Thursday, December 21: See the Winter Lights at Central Park in Oak Brook
Stroll through scenic pathways with holiday lights and see dancing trees, inspirational signs, rainbow arches, and more at Winter Lights at Central Park.
Friday, December 22: Have a Gift-Wrapping Party Together
Round up your crew, play some carols, and break out the gift wrap to get this chore done together. Wrapping presents is often fun for kids. Small children especially love getting to use tools like scissors, tape, ribbon, and bows. Writing tags, tying ribbons, affixing bows: it’s basically a giant crafting session!
You can talk about who the gifts are for and why you chose them to help encourage thoughtfulness. Kids might want to wrap in their rooms and sneak presents for family members down beneath the tree, too.
As an added bonus, “creatively wrapped” gifts are downright charming when it’s clear that my five-year-old did them all by himself. (It’s less cute when my husband and I wrap them poorly five minutes before we’re supposed to leave for the Christmas party.)
Saturday, December 22: Ooh and Aah at Navy Pier’s Winter Fireworks
If you’re heading to downtown Chicago this Christmas season, plan your trip to coincide with the Winter Fireworks at Navy Pier. The display is scheduled for Saturdays at 9:00pm from November 25 through December 31.
Sunday, December 23: Find Santa for Last-Minute Wish List Updates
Santa and Mrs. Claus will be at Wheaton’s “W Tent” (located at South Main Street and West Liberty Drive in Wheaton) to take photos and visit with children. If your kids have a last-minute wish list update, this is a great spot to find Santa right before Christmas!
While you’re downtown, you can stroll over to the library, which Kidlist readers picked as one of the Top 10 Libraries in Chicago’s West Suburbs for 2023.
Monday, December 24: Tour the Lights in Your Neighborhood
Take a walking tour of Christmas lights in your neighborhood! While driving to see the most spectacular lights displays is oh-so-much fun, just walking down the street to see the creativity of your neighbors is a different kind of special.
Tuesday, December 25: Take a Christmas Day Hike Through The Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum is free to visit every Christmas Day! (The buildings and Children’s Garden are closed, so plan accordingly.) We love to go after all of the the present-opening hubbub. It’s a glorious counterbalance to all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
Printable Christmas Bucket List
We made a printable too! Click the image below to open the holiday bucket list in a new window and print the high quality version so you can mark off the ones you have done.
We love when you tag us on social! Be a Kidlist friend and tag @kidlist #sharekidlist when you try something you see on the site. And for more holiday inspiration, bookmark the Kidlist Holiday Guide for Winter 2022.