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History of The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

For 50 years, the trees along North Michigan Avenue have been illuminated to signal the official kick-off of the holiday season in Chicago and around the nation. With the help of over 600 volunteers, The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival® encourages everyone to join in the spirit of the holiday season and enjoy a host of festive experiences along The Magnificent Mile®. Celebrate the magic of the Lights Festival with a book and a postcard series that highlights the colorful past of this cherished annual event!

About the Book

Written by former staff member Ellen S. Farrar, the book titled The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is part of Arcadia Publishing’s popular series Images of America.

This series celebrates small towns and events through beautiful black and white images; and this new book is no different. Boasting over 200 images of holiday celebrations along Michigan Avenue, The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival takes the reader to 1949 when a 67-foot Christmas Tree was decorated with 1,500 lights and placed in Water Tower Park. The book then carries the reader though the fascinating history of how celebrities Betty Grable and Betty Hutton joined Chicagoans to start the holidays with a lighting ceremony, eventually handing the job off to Mickey Mouse and friends. Some of The Magnificent Mile Association's most dedicated members have been active since the inception of this spectacular kick-off of the holiday season, and The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival tells their story.

About the Postcard Series

The excerpts below are from Postcards of America: The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, and it gives a striking glance at the history of this special event, even before the procession began.

  • Historic Water Tower

    Throughout its history, the Water Tower has been the hub of holiday activity for North Michigan Avenue and its neighborhoods. Complemented by tiny white tree lights adorning the park’s meticulously maintained trees, the tower shines during the holiday season, dressed in holiday wreathes and greenery. (Photo courtesy of Davis Harrison Dion)

  • 1949

    Installed by members of The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree with 1,500 lights and a six-foot star topper dressed up Water Tower Park in 1949.

     

  • 1953

    The holiday season in 1953 officially began on November 25 when Hollywood film star Betty Grable, and her husband band leader Harry James, arrived in Chicago to flip a master switch to illuminate a 35-foot star on the historic Water Tower. Grable performed in Water Tower Park with the Lake Shore Club Carolers.

     

  • 1959

    In 1959, Saks Fifth Avenue sold its traditional metal Christmas decoration and replaced it with tiny white lights imported from Italy, stringing them on the branches of the elm trees in front of the store. It was a success, and led to The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.

     

  • 1961

    Attired in matching red outfits in November 1961, twins Jackie and Jerry Wright directed the placement of the miniature white lights on the trees in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, the retailer that originated the lighting of trees on North Michigan Avenue.

     

  • 1995

    Santa arrived as the final guest of honor aboard a trolley in 1995. A feature of every Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, the buses owned by Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company transport characters, bands, and association members down the procession route high enough for even the smallest parade-goers to see. (Photo courtesy of Stanley Wlodkowski)


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