The habits of the holidays are what bind families together – and sometimes also drive us a little crazy. Between the beloved rituals of the season, sometimes we long for things that are a little different. Sometimes we want to make our own new traditions. Maybe, just maybe, we’d like to do something that breaks up the monotony of the “merry.”
If this sounds familiar, consider taking in some kooky celebrations, or looking at some old favorites in a new way to break up the pressure for perfection this holiday season.
CATHEDRAL SQUARE AND DOWNTOWN FIREWORKS
Nov. 21-Jan. 5: When you drive past Cathedral Square during the holiday season, you’ll see all sorts of festive decorations. The lights come courtesy of Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) 21 but the smaller, and less traditional, trees are decorated by Milwaukee students.
This is the tenth year Milwaukee students have decorated the trees that line the sidewalks through the park which is temporarily renamed Community Spirit Park for the season. BID 21’s marketing and events coordinator Leah Thomas says the project started with just 10 schools but this year, about 60 schools will create their own theme and decorate a tree. There’s a big party for the nearly 2000 children who come up with decorating themes that range from using CDs to making wine cork snowmen. Last year, the students also brought non-perishable food items for Feeding America and provided 1200 meals for those in need.
If your little ones want to hear directly from Santa, there will be a mailbox on the corner of Kilbourn Avenue and Jackson Street where kids can drop off a letter until December 15 and get a personalized response, direct from the North Pole.
If you are in the mood for something more explosive, the only winter fireworks show in Milwaukee is part of the Holiday Lights Festival kick-off on November 21 at Pere Marquette Park. The fireworks will wrap up a variety show that starts at 6 p.m in the park at 900 N. Plankinton.
CANDY CANE LANE
Nov. 23-Dec. 26: Thousands of people have visited Candy Cane Lane in West Allis since it started in 1984, but did you know the 300-plus families who decorate their houses every year have raised $1.75 million for the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer (MACC) Fund? The neighborhood first got the idea to decorate for a cause when a resident’s child was struck with cancer. Now, hundreds of homes tuck into the tinsel to delight the whole community while raising money. It’s the only large, totally free holiday light show in Wisconsin but if you feel like giving, you’ll be helping the MACC Fund try to meet last year’s total of $108,000. This year, the lights will be up from November 23 and you can drive through the area between 92nd and 96th streets from Oklahoma to Montana avenues until December 26. The MACC Fund’s Colleen Moran says the long-running event has become a holiday destination for many: “What we like is that at this point, people who come through with their kids say, ‘my parents brought us through.’”
Moran says one couple drove through Candy Cane Lane on their first date and the man came back when it was time to pop the question.
Santa will be on hand for those with more pressing questions from December 6-23.
LIGHTING OF THE WHALE
Nov. 29: If you’ve been to the Milwaukee Public Museum, you’ve probably seen the whale suspended from the ceiling over the Grand Staircase. The whale has been part of the museum collection since 1884 but for the last seven or eight years, it’s been decked out for the holidays. Communications director Carrie Becker says the idea to light the whale originally came from the Milwaukee Public Museum’s exhibits team, which she describes as a crew of “wacky characters.” She also says about 2000 lights are used to make the skeleton merry.
Skip the Black Friday shopping frenzy this year and join actors dressed in period clothes as they pull the big lever to the light the whale for the holidays. For the first time this year, you can also make your own holiday whale ornament and do other educational crafts.
The whale will be illuminated at 11:30 a.m. on November 29.
CAR MENORAH PARADE
Dec. 1: For the first time in hundreds of years, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fall on the same Thursday. Lots of people are already heralding the new holiday “Thanksgivukkah” on social media. This year, Lubavitch of Wisconsin’s annual Car Menorah Parade will ride through the streets of Mequon, Glendale and Milwaukee on December 1. Starting around 3:15 p.m. at the Metro Market in Mequon, cars decorated with menorahs will meet up and drive down Port Washington Road to the Pick 'n Save in Glendale. There, more menorah-bedecked vehicles will join up for a ride along Lake Drive, I-794 and on to Bayshore Town Center in Glendale. And that’s not all: Lubavitch of Wisconsin is hosting their “Grand Chanukah Celebration” at Bayshore with a laser light show, a 6-foot ice menorah and more.
POLAR BEAR PLUNGE
Jan. 1: Maybe you’ve looked longingly at the lakefront in the winter and wished it was summer so you could take a quick dip. Well, if you join hundreds of other people on New Year’s Day, you can do that anyway.
The Polar Bear Plunge is described as Milwaukee’s officially unofficial holiday event. There’s no real point, other than bragging rights, and no real organization, unless someone prints up T-shirts. Although the cold temperatures aren't recommended for young children, teenagers have been known to make the plunge a family event.
Glendale mother of three Sara Strunk has done the chilly Bradford Beach dip on three separate occasions. One year, she and another mom used the event to raise $500 for Project Linus, a group that makes and delivers blankets to seriously ill or traumatized children. Other than that, Strunk says she keeps going back because she can.
“Not everybody does a marathon and not everybody does the Polar Bear Plunge. I decided I’m not going to run a marathon but I’m totally doing the Polar Bear Plunge.”
You can join others with a similarly adventurous approach on New Year’s Day at about noon. Chris Roessler is an account executive with Inferno Marketing Group. The company helps a different charity raise money through the Plunge each year and maintains a web site with information Polar Bear Plunge-rs can use. Roessler says it’s important to arrive early because parking along Bradford Beach is hard to come by.
JUST FOR GROWN-UPS
Our little cherubs might be the best things that ever happened to us but even the most devoted parents need to get away from the demands for toys, candy and more, more, more, at least once before the holidays are over. If you’d like an adults-only activity but want to keep the holiday spirit, here are more unusual holiday celebrations, just for you:
SANTA CYCLE RAMPAGE
Nov. 30: Put on your best Santa suit, and your bike helmet, and join the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin for the Santa Cycle Rampage on November 30. This is the 10th year for the loosely organized event and it’s going in a slightly new direction. Riders will still dress in warm clothes and holiday costumes, meet for breakfast, then ride to Lakefront Brewery. This year, they will continue on to Turner Hall for a concert with 80s ska band The English Beat as part of a fundraiser organized by the Lowlands Group, owners of Café Hollander, Trocadero and more. Jessica Ginster, development director for the Bicycle Federation, is excited for this year’s changes.
“It’s fantastic,” she says. “We reached out and asked (Turner Hall Ballroom) if they were interested and they donated their space. They’re making commemorative glasses and a portion of every drink sold will go to the Bike Federation.”
The Bike Federation will have places to park bikes at each location the riders visit but you have to remember your lock and you have to remember your bike when you leave.
A CUDAHY CAROLER CHRISTMAS
“We Tree Guys from Cudahy Are” is the sort of locally-flavored carol you’ll hear during “A Cudahy Caroler Christmas,” In Tandem Theatre’s wildly popular holiday musical. It’s a totally local show about Stash Zielinski and his quest to reunite the Cudahy Carolers for a cable-access show.
The play is described as an “homage to beer, bowling, friendship and forgiveness.” In Tandem Theatre’s artistic director is starring as Stash for this year’s production. Chris Fleiller says the show is recommended for audiences aged 13 and over because it’s a bit “bawdy."
“It has quite a traditional message. The route it takes, however, is not so.”
Fleiller says some fans have come to the show for the first time then returned the next year with 10 friends.
- MKE date night: Ideas beyond dinner and a movie
- 6 ways to help your child stay organized
- 10 things to do for free or under $5 this winter with kids in the Milwaukee area
- 20 ways to embrace winter inside and out
- Learning to ski along with the kids
- Throw a fabulous "Frozen" birthday party on a budget
- MLK celebrations in the Milwaukee area
- 8 things to do in the snow
- Thank you notes: 6 simple ways to get kids to put pen to paper
- Playgroups in the Milwaukee area