In December 1942, the United States was just about one year into World War II, and morale was low on the Homefront. So here in Chicago, the folks at the Museum of Science & Industry decided to lift spirits with a simple item: a Christmas tree.
That single tree has turned into a 75-year tradition, now known as “Christmas Around the World” and “Holidays of Light.” And in modern times, it includes one epic, 45-foot tree, plus 50 smaller trees that nod to holiday traditions from across the globe.
“It slowly grew into what it is today,” says Jeff Buonomo, manager of special exhibitions.
The first year’s tree was a salute to our country’s allies in the war. Nowadays, the designated Grand Tree is decorated with 30,000 lights and takes a full week to assemble and decorate. The smaller trees, decorated by local cultural groups, pay tribute to those cultures’ holiday customs. Buonomo says the Belgium tree, with its eponymous waffles, and the spider web-covered Lithuania tree, are always popular. And this year, the exhibit will include three new trees: Assyrian (representing people from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon), Australian and Nigerian. In addition to the trees, cultural groups also put on 45-minute performances in the museum’s auditorium on weekends, so visitors can get a more vivid sense of some of the cultures’ customs.
“Holidays of Light” was added in 1994 to teach visitors about other cultural celebrations, such as Hanukkah, Diwali and Ramadan. While the exhibit has moved around the museum in previous years, in the anniversary year, it will be in the Rotunda, mixed in with the trees.
In recent years, “Christmas Around the World” has been themed to fit one of the traveling exhibits at the museum. But this year, it’s all about the anniversary, with a small gallery that examines how things have changed in the past 75 years. New this year is a weekend ornament make-and-take activity that families can enjoy together.
Due to the exhibit’s longevity, it has become a beloved holiday tradition in Chicago: parents bring children who later bring their own children. But don’t worry—the Museum of Science & Industry is committed to making sure it doesn’t grow stale.
“We try to make it new and fresh every year so people feel like they’re having a new experience,” Buonomo says. “The exhibit was introduced to raise morale and bring people together. We’re lucky enough to continue that tradition and promote people coming together during the holidays.”
Here’s hoping that worthy goal continues for at least another 75 years. Talk to you in 2092!
If you go
Nov. 16-Jan. 7
Museum of Science & Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago