Spend the Holidays Together at the Museum of Science and Industry

Photo Credit: JB Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Families have been flocking to the Museum of Science and Industry as a holiday tradition since the first tree arrived in 1942. The decorations on the original tree changed every day for 12 days to represent the countries that had joined the U.S. in fighting during World War II.

Since then, instead of changing the decorations on the Grand Tree, volunteers from the cultural and ethnic communities in Chicago have decorated their own trees to teach families about other holiday traditions. The forest of trees that complete Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light have grown to 56, representing traditions of countries around the world.

Family is the key as the trees are decorated. The Russia tree, for instance, is decked by families who have adopted children from Russia, adorned with crafts and dolls made by little hands. Another family has decorated the tree representing Bolivia for the past 14 years, and the ornaments have been brought back to Chicago from trips to the South American country.

As families from Chicago and its suburbs visit the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibits this season, they can see more than 50 festive trees and learn more about each country and organization represented.

Join us for an ornament scavenger hunt!

Find the ornaments and post a photo with your family and friends. Tag your location at the Museum of Science and Industry for a chance to win a free Family Membership to the Museum.Each photo represents one entry. Winners will be chosen after the exhibit closes on Jan. 5, 2020.

Also, tag your photos with #MSIHolidayHunt!

Download the scavenger hunt — print version and mobile version.

Before your trip to MSI this holiday season, learn about a few of the trees in the collection and what makes each one special.


Assyrians come from modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Despite displacement, there is a thriving culture in which traditions and language have been passed down over thousands of years. As many Assyrians are born outside of their ancestral homeland, there are growing concerns that connections to their roots will fade away. The theme for this year’s tree, “The Mighty Lamassu,” represents a strong and proud history and heritage. These winged bulls with human heads were colossal figures that guarded the gates of the ancient Assyrian empire.


In Bolivia, Christmas centers on the birth of Jesus. Gifts come from Jesus and Santa Claus delivers those gifts. This religious holiday is spent with family and celebrated with special dinners consisting of picana (a soup made of chicken, roast beef or roast pork), salads and a variety of tropical fruits. The ornaments on the tree come from the three main regions of the country: high plains, low plains and valleys and include llamas – red, yellow & green totora boats, and native Cholita dolls that represent the city of La Paz.


For the children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the winter holidays are best described with one word: Snow! Three-dimensional snowflakes and white decorations on the tree give the impression of gently falling snow. Meanwhile, the children and snowmen sled and play games in a winter wonderland.


During the Pase del Nino Viajero (festival of the traveling infant child) held in Cuenca, Ecuador on Dec. 24, costumed children parade through town with floats, animals and music. Children also bring gifts of fruit to their neighborhood’s nativity scene as offerings to the Christ child.


The colorful woven belts that adorn the tree, the dolls in costume and the shields represent different counties in Estonia. These designs are transferred into the costumes, similar to what is represented on the dolls, for the song festival held in Tallinn, Estonia every five years. The 27th festival was held in 2019, with more than 30,000 participants.


The German tree features decorations that honor the country’s culture and craftsmanship, with wood and glass ornaments representing carpenters and glass blowers. In Germany, Christmas is a time to bring family together and celebrate love by cooking hearty meals including roasted pig, “spaetzles” (dumplings), bread, nut strudel, gingerbread, chocolate, and homemade wine.


Christmas in Japan is celebrated as a way to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. Santa is known as Santa-san (Mr. Santa). Another Japanese gift bringer is “Hoteiosho”, a Japanese god of good fortune from Buddhism, but not necessarily related to Christmas. The ornaments on the Japanese tree represent aspects of their culture, and each ornament is handcrafted and derived from the methods of “origami” (paper folding) and “temari” (embroidery).


Lithuania is an agricultural country, and original Christmas decorations were created with what was found in the farming fields. Before Christmas Eve, Lithuanian homes are cleaned from top to bottom, including fresh bed linens and baths for everyone. Straw is placed beneath the tablecloth to symbolize the manger where Christ was born.


The tree represents the Nigerian community as a whole highlighting many tribal origin groups. The green and white ribbons represent the Nigerian flags, bows made from Native Ankara dyed clothing, various beading from the country, and rice and bean ornaments. Additional decorations highlight the rich family customs shared by all Nigerian people at Christmastime.


Several elven characters visit Norwegians during the holiday season. Julenisse, a short elf with red hat and beard, much like Santa, brings gifts for good children. Fjonisse lives in the barn and cares for animals. He is a trickster though, and families must give him Christmas Eve porridge to keep him at bay. Norway’s tree features brightly painted Norwegian Rosemaled painted ornaments, traditional folk art, heart baskets, candles, yarn nisse and Norwegian flags.


All of the decorations on the tree are from the Philippines, and most have been hand-crafted. Many are made with pineapple fiber, beautifully colored capiz shells, bamboo and leaves from tropical trees. Christmas in the Philippines is celebrated as early as September and lasts through January. The country has earned the distinction of celebrating the world’s longest Christmas season.

Puerto Rico

People living in Puerto Rico celebrate El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day on Jan. 6 with carnivals, parades, fairs and feast. The greatest celebration is in the district of Old San Juan, where the Three Kings make an appearance hailing from Juana Diaz, the unofficial hometown of the Magi.


The Russian tree is decorated by children adopted from Russia and their families, serving as thanks to Russia and a celebration of Russian culture and tradition. It includes traditional black lacquer ornaments handcrafted in Russia, as well as ornaments gifted by Russian schoolchildren. Among the ornaments are important symbols such as Grandfather Frost on his troika pulled by three horses and the beautiful Snowmaiden.


The holiday season in Slovakia begins with the first day of the Advent and the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, and continues through Three Kings Day on January 6. Slovakia’s foremost celebration takes place on “Vilija,” Christmas Eve. The “Vilija” meal starts with “oplatki,” wafers coated with honey and eaten with garlic. Ornaments on the Slovakia tree feature cookies, candies, candles, snowflakes and flags. Décor also pays tribute to the Tatra Mountains, castles of Slovakia, and famous inventors and scientists. Also displayed is the Apollo command module of Eugene Cernan, the Slovakian astronaut who was the last person on the Moon.

Learn more about the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago by visiting msichicago.org

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