10 Events to Spark Your Holiday Spirit

Our region is full of holiday-themed entertainment. Preview 10 festive events that can add to your joy and expand your portfolio of splendid holiday memories.

IThis holiday season, look out for light displays, enchanting performances and family-friendly activities happening all throughout our region. Here are 10 annual events that make this season special.

Rockford Lights Displays

Thanks to the Rockford Park District, opportunities abound for families and friends to enjoy a city that’s a little bit brighter.
Once again, Rockford Park District in conjunction with Rockford Fourth of July Committee presents The Holiday Festival of Lights, an annual display that twinkles against the scenic backdrop of Sinnissippi Park, 1401 N. Second St.
The festival has grown immensely since it began in 1989, when it had only 11 displays. Now, visitors can drive through the park’s winding roads and admire more than 50 dazzling showcases that include Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, nativity scenes and more, all sponsored by local businesses and organizations.
“This familiar family favorite continues to change every year,” says Laura Gibbs-Green, public relations manager for the Rockford Park District. “We’re very proud and happy to present this to the public.”
Driving through The Holiday Festival of Lights is free, although donations are appreciated. The displays are aglow on Fri.-Sun. through Dec. 25 from 5-10 p.m., and will stay on all night Christmas Eve and until 10 p.m. on Christmas Day. Visit rockfordfireandice.com for more information.
Just across the street, Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, 1354 N. Second St., hosts All Aglow Holiday Display through Jan. 8. Sparkling holiday lights and beautiful floral displays enhance the already merry conservatory, while the outdoor grounds are also aglow for the season. Regular admissions charges apply for the display inside the conservatory. Hours are Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
“The grounds are completely transformed by more than 160,000 lights – it’s really above and beyond this year,” Gibbs-Green says. “Santa and Mrs. Claus often stop by, and the tropical backdrop provides a magnificent scenery for family photos, making this a great event for families to enjoy together.”
Visit nicholasconservatory.com for more information.

Christmas in the Country at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

With new lights outdoors and new decorations indoors, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is ready for the holiday season.
On Nov. 20, the resort kicks off the annual six-week long Christmas in the Country celebration.
“We flip the switch on more than two million lights throughout the property, then follow it up with our dazzling grand fireworks display,” says Courtney Nobilio, director of marketing communications. “Visitors can discover even more holiday magic this season with kids activities and live entertainment.”
On the hour, daily, guests can hop aboard a trolley and tour the resort to see all the decorations; relax with a holiday beverage and enjoy live entertainment in the lobby lounge; and cozy up for a reading of a classic holiday story.
Live holiday music and breakfast with Santa commences every Saturday and Sunday from Nov. 26-Dec. 24, from 8 a.m. to noon. All attire is welcome, whether you want to dress up for a photo op with Santa or simply arrive in PJ’s. On Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m., children can visit with Santa Claus in the main lobby and drop off their letters to Santa in a magical mailbox. Santa’s helpers collect the mail daily at 4 p.m.
In the Laramoor Ballroom, guests can enjoy air hockey, ping pong and 18 arcade games. The “Grand Game Zone” is active from Dec. 16 through Jan. 2 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Finally, ring in the New Year in “grand” style.
“Whether you choose to celebrate over a romantic meal in one of our restaurants, with a gathering of friends or with family, we offer a variety of packages and dining options,” Nobilio says.
For more information on Christmas in the Country, visit grandgeneva.com or call (800) 558-3417.

Rockford Choral Union Presents ‘Messiah’

Whenever the Rockford Choral Union gives its annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” you know Christmas is coming.
For the 71st year, roughly 135 vocalists and instrumentalists will ring in the Christmas season, on Nov. 26 and 27, with the Rockford Choral Union’s annual presentation of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Lutheran Church, 200 N. First. St., Rockford.
“This is sort of the kickoff to the Advent season,” says director Nat Bauer, who’s in his 15th year leading the concert. “I’ve received letters from people who tell me this concert gets them into the holiday season and into the Christmas spirit.”
The singers come from about 65 local churches, ranging from Methodist and Presbyterian to Catholic and nondenominational churches. Students from local schools participate and many of the musicians also perform with Rockford Symphony Orchestra. Some of the performers on stage have decades of experience with this event.
“Messiah” tells a sacred story, with voices and orchestra, about man’s sinful nature and Christ’s redemption of man.
The oratorio includes more than 16 songs highlighting Biblical references on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The performance is broken up into three parts. Part I of “Messiah” is about the promise of redemption; Part II deals with Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. The final part celebrates the glorification of Christ in Heaven.
Bauer expects 800 to 1,000 people to attend the performances, which will take place at 4 p.m. Nov. 26 and 3 p.m. Nov. 27.
Learn more at rockfordchoralunion.org.

Stroll on State

Stroll on State, a holiday festival that brings more people to downtown Rockford each year than any other single-day event, will once again kick off the Christmas season.
The much-anticipated event brought an estimated record of 66,000 people to downtown Rockford last year, and will return for its fourth year from 3-9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 26. It will take place mainly along State Street in downtown Rockford, but festivities will be spread throughout 20 blocks.
Illinois Bank & Trust is the presenting sponsor of this free, family-friendly event.
“Stroll on State kicks off the holiday season for our city,” says Tana Vettore, director of Destination Development for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Visitors can stroll on State Street, from Third Street to Main Street, while witnessing the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season.
Daytime activities include outdoor and indoor ice-skating at the Riverview Ice House, 324 N. Madison St. and horse and wagon rides.
At Santa Land, guests are transported to Santa’s North Pole workshop. Kids can watch Santa’s elves work on toys for the season while they wait to meet Santa.
One of the more popular events is the lighting of the city Christmas tree at the corner of West State and Wyman streets.
“The trees are always locally sourced,” says Josh Albrecht, director of marketing and public affairs for the RACVB. “They’re donated by a different family in the Rockford region each year.”
Visit strollonstate.com for more information.

Rockford Dance Company’s ‘The Nutcracker’

“The Nutcracker” is a magical combination of ballet, Christmas and cute kids in mice costumes. This year, Rockford Dance Company (RDC) is performing the holiday classic at Rockford University’s Maddox Theatre on Nov. 26-27.
“We take cues from the community, and people have been loud and clear that they want a traditional Nutcracker – a magical performance that you take your family to see on a yearly basis,” says Emily Cooke, the company’s executive director. “We hope the community is pleased with this year’s production.”
“The Nutcracker” tells the story of a young German girl, Clara, who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince battling a ferocious mouse king. She proceeds on an enchanted journey and witnesses a world of cultures. Tchaikovsky’s timeless score leads the audience through this nostalgic Christmas classic.
“The Nutcracker” is unique in that all members of the community are welcome to audition. Although members of Rockford Dance Company receive the main roles, people from across the region have an opportunity to play a part in the production.
Milwaukee Ballet Company’s top dancers will portray the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier – two small, yet impactful roles. A stunning pas de deux (duet) between the two dancers is what closes the show.
“That is huge,” Cooke says. “It’s a moment for the audience to think ‘wow, these people are flawless.’ It’s a palpable moment when you can feel the energy of the audience. And it’s also an inspiring moment for the dancers – they realize what’s possible.”
To purchase tickets, call (815) 963-3341 or visit rockforddancecompany.com.

Rotary Botanical Garden’s Holiday Light Show

The Holiday Light Show at Rotary Botanical Gardens, 1455 Palmer Drive, in Janesville, returns for its 21st year with more to see than ever before.
The gardens glow with almost half a million lights, 100 decorated trees and animated displays. There’s music, seasonal food and drink, plus photo opportunities for festive Christmas cards. This year, you’ll find 600 dangling icicle lights hung from the tallest trees in the garden, more than 2,000 luminaries and more.
“Most of the other area light shows, while beautiful, are made to be driven through, but ours is one of the few walk-through light shows in this region,” says Susan Melton, marketing director. “So, it’s a very interactive experience and can be very powerful. You feel totally immersed in the beauty of the lights.”
Open from 4 to 8 p.m., this year’s light show promises to dazzle visitors, young and old. A special kickoff commences on Dec. 2 with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at 5 p.m., music from the Dave Potter Trio throughout the evening and a premier lighting of the gardens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50 and may be purchased by calling (608) 314-8408.
Last year, the light show brought in more than 27,000 visitors, making it one of Rotary Gardens’ largest fundraisers for the year.
Tickets to see the light show cost $5 and can be purchased online or in person. Admission is free for children age 2 and younger. For additional details, and to check weather-related show cancellations, visit rotarybotanicalgardens.org.

Monroe Theatre Guild’s ‘White Christmas’

The holiday season is the perfect time to escape to the theater. The dazzling lights, beautiful costumes and iconic talent are a nice distraction from hectic holiday chaos, whether you want to get away from the blustery weather or the stress of holiday preparations.
From Dec. 2-3 and 9-11, Monroe Theatre Guild is drawing back the curtain to present the timeless classic, “White Christmas.”
Showings are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays.
The plot stays true to the 1954 blockbuster film: Following WWII, song-and-dance duo Bob Wallace and Phil Davis follow sister duo Betty and Judy to perform at Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont. As they arrive, Bob and Phil find their old commander, General Waverly, is the lodge owner and in trouble. While the group tries to pull off a yuletide miracle for the General, a series of romances and mix-ups occur, causing tensions to rise.
The witty humor, toe tapping songs, astonishing dance numbers, and drama in this Christmas classic are sure to put the audience in the mood for the holiday season. The performance includes memorable songs such as “White Christmas,” “Snow,” “Count Your Blessings,” and more.
To purchase tickets, visit monroetheatre.com or call (608) 325-1111.

Events at The Edgewater

The historic Edgewater hotel, nestled on the shores of Lake Mendota, in Madison, Wis., is getting all decked out for the holidays.
On Dec. 3, Santa returns to The Edgewater for a “PJ’s and Pancakes” breakfast. The event takes place from 9 to 11 a.m. and everyone – kids and parents alike – is encouraged to don their favorite pajamas and enjoy breakfast with Santa Claus.
“It’s the perfect photo opportunity for this year’s Christmas cards, which means you can tick one more thing off your holiday to-do list,” says Mindy Bianca, public relations representative.
St. Nick returns to The Edgewater once more, this time accompanied by someone else who looks best in red … Bucky Badger. The season’s two favorite characters co-host “Bucky’s Breakfast with Santa,” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Dec. 10.
“Come to think of it, this wouldn’t make a bad Christmas card photo, either,” Bianca says. “And there’s one more way The Edgewater can help you with holiday plans – if you’re expecting out-of-town guests and run out of room at your house – or simply think it’ll be a happier holiday season if everyone has their own space – The Edgewater makes for a cozy home away from home. Check out the hotel’s website for a variety of packages that might appeal to friends and family and for a few ways you can treat yourself with a little getaway.”
Tickets for The Edgewater events are non-refundable. To make a reservation, call (608) 535-8189 or visit theedgewater.com.

Galena’s Mistletoe Stroll Holiday House Tour

Galena’s finest bed-and-breakfasts are joining forces and opening their doors. Tour the parlors and dining rooms of each location, which have been decked out for the holidays, and enjoy a couple of tasty treats along the way.
The event takes place on Dec. 10 and 17 from 2 to 5 p.m. This year, nine locations are participating: Aldrich Guest House, Alice’s Snyder House, Annie Wiggins Guest House, Avery Guest House, Belle Aire Guest House, Hawk Valley Retreat & Cottages, Hellman Guest House, Lamberson House and Steamboat House.
Tickets and maps of participating bed-and-breakfasts, along with a description of each house, are obtainable at any of the locations on the days of the event. Attendees may begin at any participating inn. Tickets cost $10 per person and don’t have to be purchased in advance. Children under 12 can attend for free. For more information, visit bestofgalena.com.

Cannova’s Holiday Dinner

For 30 years now, Linda and Patrick Beckman have presented their special “Holiday Dinner Show” at Cannova’s Italian Cuisine, and it’s become a holiday tradition in Freeport. Presented this year on Dec. 13-14, and Dec. 19-21, it includes a five-course meal, planned and cooked by Linda, and in between courses, Christmas songs and skits, performed by Patrick and some very talented friends.
“We started with three singers and a piano,” says Patrick, a classical pianist who used to teach in the music department at Highland Community College. “We now have eight singers – what we call ‘the big choir’ – a piano and a jazz trio.”
The show includes ensemble, duet and solo vocal performances, accompanied by Patrick and the jazz ensemble, as well as a few original skits and characters. Music includes traditional and popular standards, silly fun songs and some classical tunes, all having to do with Christmas.
For the performances, Cannova’s is transformed into a holiday dinner theater venue, complete with sound mixers, amplifiers, speakers and lighting. The main dining room, which usually seats about 60, is reconfigured to accommodate as many as 75.
“The restaurant is decked out in lots of wreaths and Christmas lights, with poinsettias under the piano and set out everywhere,” Patrick says.
Expect fantastic food along with the top-notch entertainers. Cannova’s has been named multiple times by Pizza Today as one of the top 100 U.S. pizza makers, and has been recommended by the Chicago Sun-Times in both its Food Review and Pizza Review sections.
Reservations are required for the event. Tickets typically sell out quickly. Additional shows may be added on Thursday, Dec. 18, if needed. To book your seat or table, call (815) 233-0032.