From Home Alone to While You Were Sleeping: Why Chicago is always the setting for Christmas movies

With tax breaks, architectural coups and ‘snow globe’ weather, Chicago has lured many a classic holiday movie, writes Sheila Flynn

Wednesday 22 December 2021 16:25
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The scenes are iconic for holiday film lovers of a certain generation: A lonely Sandra Bullock decorating her Christmas tree in a small apartment near the tracks of the L. The McCallister family sprinting through a garland-decorated O’Hare airport to the tune of Run, Run Rudolph. The exasperated shrieks at the Griswolds’ suburban Chicago home in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation coupled with Cousin Eddie’s classic one-liners.

From While You Were Sleeping to Home Alone and more recent favourite comedies like Office Christmas Party, an inordinate number of Christmas movies seem to be set in Chicago.

So why is that?

The answer is multifold.

It’s charming. It’s cheap. And it’s chillingly, unfailingly cold – often covered in snow, in fact, which turns out to be a huge asset when you’re trying to capture crystalline Christmastime magic.

Chicago ‘really does up Christmas bigtime in a very cinematically interesting ways,’ screenwriter and Columbia College professor tells The Independent

“Let’s face it: Snow is pretty much guaranteed around here,” Ron Falzone, a screenwriter and associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, tells The Independent. “If you’re going to shoot, and you want to shoot snow, it’s very expensive to create snow.

“But more than that ... Chicago really does up Christmas bigtime in very cinematically interesting ways. You can go to a city like Cleveland or Rochester; you’ll see a lot of Christmas lights. It’ll be pretty. Chicago, with the windows of Macy’s, with the Mag Mile completely dolled up, it’s spectacular looking – and let’s say you’re a filmmaker ... it’s already art-directed here. You’re not going to have to pick up that cost.”

Kwame Amoaku, director of the Chicago Film Office, sums it up nicely.

“Snow,” he tells The Independent in an email. “We have it; California and Atlanta do not.”

Those two locations – along with cities like New York, Toronto and Vancouver – tend to attract much film and television production in the US.

Chicago’s ready-made setting of Christmas lights proves ideal for filmmakers during the holiday season

But in Chicago, Mr Amoaku points out, productions can avail of the Illinois Tax Credit offering a 30 per cent rebate. He also references “cheap permits” and “great crew on both sides of the camera, lots of local actors and crew members”.

But there’s something more to why Chicago truly seems to resonate with Christmas film fans. And John Hughes – behind favourites such as Home Alone and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – has a lot to do with it.

For children of the 70s, 80s and even 90s, he was essentially the architect of the coming-of-age cinematic canon. And he based most of those movies in Chicagoland, where he spent his own formative years.

“He lived here for the longest time, and he chose to shoot here, because he felt this is where he knew people the best – even in his non-Christmas related movies, like the Breakfast Club ... I think it’s more terrific for people from Chicago than elsewhere,” Prof Falzone tells The Independent. “It clearly nails the Chicago suburbs ... [and] those types.”

The character and personalities of Chicagoan protagonists also have massive appeal, he adds.

Sandra Bullock plays a Chicago transit worker in the 1995 romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping

“Chicago is always portrayed as salt-of-the-earth, down-to-earth and easy-going in a way that other big cities are not,” he says, adding that film characters tend to be portrayed as “stable at the centre in a world that’s going crazy around them”.

But Chicago as a city tends to frequently take on the role of a main character, too, he says.

“This is a city of architecture – and you start with that, and there is a very, very definable look to Chicago,” he tells The Independent. “And you can’t tell a story that is about a location that looks like every other location, because the place can’t become a character – and Chicago is very, very much a character in all these movies we’re talking about.”

The popularity of Chicago Christmas film locations also can’t be over-estimated. A tourism official tells The Independent that no specific figures are kept to monitor how much Christmas movies have influenced visitor numbers or attraction popularity – but a visit to the Home Alone house, on any day of the year, is proof that holiday classics have bolstered the local economy.

On a Sunday afternoon in November, cars are slowing as they drive down the street in the northern suburb of Winnetka that hosts the film abode of Kevin McCallister, famously played by Macauley Culkin in the 1990 blockbuster. One older woman, holding the hand of her kindergarten-age charge, points to the house and asks in Spanish if he remembers a specific scene.

Jason and Chloe Barry, standing outside the Home Alone house in Winnetka, recreate a famous scene from the film; they’ve made a visit to the location an annual holiday tradition

Jason and Chloe Barry, who live about a half-hour away in Libertyville, pose for a photo outside the mansion as other fans pass; they’ve made a visit to the site an annual holiday tradition.

“For the past couple of years, we have made a mushroom bolognese, and we spend all day making it – and then we come here at night to look at all the houses, take pictures, and then we drive back ... and have our nice dinner and watch the movie,” Mrs Barry tells The Independent.

“We brought a friend here in April because she’s from Arkansas – and we surprised her.”

Her husband, grinning, describes the tradition as “reliving your childhood”.

“It’s a magical movie,” he says. “You can come see it in real life ... It’s timeless.”

He adds: “I’ve seen it way busier – like they’ve blocked off the street where there’s one-way traffic when you get closer to Christmas.”

All of those people are filling the city coffers. Many take the Metra rail line; the house is about a five-minute walk from the closest stop. Then they visit the small strip of boutique Winnetka shops and restaurants.

The area around Michigan Avenue and the river, steps from this decorated tree outside of Chicago’s Wrigley Building, is part of a landscape that tourism boss Jim Meyer says is ‘sort of like a walking human snow globe’ during the holidays

And everyone, of course, at some point heads downtown, which doesn’t feature as heavily in Home Alone as it does in other Christmas movies but has a very distinct and festive (if often freezing) vibe.

“In a way, it’s sort of like a human walking snow globe,” Jim Meyer, interim president and CEO of Choose Chicago, tells The Independent. “You’ve got all the bright Christmas colours, the buildings are lit up in holiday colours, different neighbourhoods are all lit up, it just adds a glow to the city.

“People are friendly anyways, but around the holidays, the friendliness of everybody just is even more open and outstanding.”

Referring back to Home Alone, he notes a holiday package being offered by Hilton Chicago featuring experiences and locations that appear in the franchise – “just showing how a privately-held entity is acknowledging the impact that the movies filmed in Chicago can have in people wanting to come to visit the city,” he says.

Home Alone super fans were also offered the opportunity to stay in the Winnetka house through AirBnB this month for one night only as part of a promotion for the much-maligned reboot starring Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper.

Macauley Culkin, as Kevin McCallister, decorates a Christmas tree as burglar Joe Pesci looks into a window outside the house in Winnetka, Illinois, a northern Chicago suburb

That particular production is not set in Chicago, but the impact of its predecessor and other Windy City-set films simply bolsters the pride that Chicagoans have in their home, Mr Meyer says.

The way the movies “show the city, they show it as such a great city,” he tells The Independent. “They always show it as being fun ... I think it adds to [people’s] desire to visit Chicago.”

He adds: “I hate to use the words ‘warm’ and ‘fuzzy,’ but when you think about Christmas, you think about warmth, fuzzy blankets ... I tend to associate the holidays with snow and brisk weather. That sums up the holiday experience – just being able to walk outside and see the lights, step inside someplace warm, have a hot chocolate.

“From Macy’s and the tradition of their storefront windows on State Street to some of the pop-ups you see ... Christmas in Chicago, it’s for everybody.”

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