Tradition is typically king at the holidays, with meals, movies and destinations remaining the same year after year and creating that sense of cozy familiarity. This always seems particularly true in Chicago, where we revel in things like the Magnificent Mile Light Festival and eschew even minor mug changes at Christkindlmarket. And that’s okay. With the kinds of winters we usually contend with, cozy and familiar are almost the only remedy.
It’s a hard thing to get people on board with something new and different. That’s why we were shocked to hear the Chicago Botanic Garden was celebrating the 2019 holiday season with something shiny and new, rather than its tried-and-true (and much beloved) miniature masterpiece, Wonderland Express.
It was no small change either. Rather than the whimsical charm of an organic miniature Chicago, surrounded by beautiful flora and populated with tons of amazing model trains twisting through the Regenstein’s halls, the garden would be blowing out the doors and taking their holidays back outdoors with Lightscape, a beautiful artistic light show that’s never before been seen in the US, tailored to the natural beauty of the grounds, and taking guests on a dazzling dalliance through much of the garden’s massive square footage. Would people want to bundle up (or, if you were visiting this week, take a light jacket) and get out amongst the trees? With as many light shows as are around this time of year, would the Botanic Garden’s Lightscape manage to stand out and impress?
We got a chance to check out Lightscape just after it opened in November and were surprised to find that even in a late Wednesday night time slot, it was absolutely packed, and in fact, sold out. The Chicago Botanic Garden has seen great success out of its holiday shows of late, too, with even the greatly expanded 10 days of this year’s Night of 1000 Jack o’ Lanterns selling out almost before it began.
As it turns out, Lightscape has a lot of what made Night of 1000 Jack o’ Lanterns great. While Thanksgiving and beyond aren’t always the greatest time to be outdoors, (save for this Christmas heat wave) bundling up and hitting the trails has a certain appeal. Add to this great food options in the garden’s cafe and over in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, as well as a fireside warming and marshmallow roasting station about halfway through your winter walk add that comfort, warmth and fun.
Coming to us from across the pond in jolly old England, where some 1 million people enjoyed it during its time in London, Lightscape crosses the threshold from simple holiday cheer to art installation. Each distinct area of the garden is illuminated in its own breathtaking, unique way, from the simple beauty of the crabapple arbors, blooming in the middle of winter with purple-pink light to the showstopping, flickering beauty and surprising serenity of the fire garden.
There are illuminated waterfalls, faraway islands of light, and forests of weeping willow style light strands to walk through, as well as a final cathedral arch of white lights that’ll be part of your final processional, as well as plenty more surprises and takes on light as art.
What’s wonderful about it, too, is that though it’s highly instagrammable (and certainly, its photogenic nature adds to the crush of the crowds), it’s also impossible to fully appreciate without being on premises.
The spectacle, sound and feel of it all are impressive. Some moments are of hushed zen, and others invoke childlike glee or quiet reverence. What’s more, each installation fits the environment it occupies like a glove, from the blazing mystical reds of the Japanese Garden to the lights and chorus of an evergreen forest.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who managed to get a ticket to Lightscape, we applaud your forethought, as we watched the final five days sell out in merely 24 hours. With the retirement of Wonderland Express and the now apparent popularity of Lightscape though, we’re pretty sure you’ll be getting another chance to see this illuminating spectacle (or something equally brilliant) next year–as long as you plan ahead. For more about the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is beautiful in any season (and has a huge calendar of events year round) click here.