The Best of Chicago Winter Traditions

Chicago goes through a sort of metamorphosis as winter takes a firm grip over the city, bringing cold weather and incredibly short days. But don’t feel bad making runs to the local convenience store in sweatpants and slippers — during the coldest winter days, it takes a lot of motivation and sheer willpower just to leave the house. When not hibernating, Chicago residents can be seen digging their vehicles out from snow drifts and ice, meeting up at corner bars, or even jumping into a frozen Lake Michigan.

With winter officially here, we thought it was only fitting to highlight a few noteworthy Chicago traditions that mark the season. Keep reading and let us know your favorite winter traditions in the comments.

Polar Plunge

Try to picture hundreds of people clad only in bathing suits running and fully submerging themselves into a frigid Lake Michigan during the coldest period in Chicago. Sound like fun? That’s basically what the Polar Plunge is. Each year towards the end of winter, the event takes place to great fanfare — even sometimes featuring surprise celebrity guests (think Jimmy Fallon and Lady Gaga). And it’s all for a good cause, as proceeds from participant entry dues and their funds raised go to support Special Olympics Chicago.

Parking dibs

There’s no local tradition more polarizing than parking dibs. For the uninitiated, the idea is simple: residents claim, or call “dibs” on a street parking space for a few days to upwards of a week (or sometimes longer) after clearing that spot out after a heavy snowfall. When not parked in that space, the dibs participant will place a chair, a traffic cone, or some other item in the spot to signal to others that it has been claimed. Let’s just say some people get particularly creative with the items they use to claim their territory.


One of the greatest things about the holiday season is the wonderment of lighting displays throughout the city’s neighborhoods and cultural attractions. In particular, the ZooLights installation at the Lincoln Park Zoo is a dazzling experience that excites the senses for people of all ages. For over 25 years, the recurring event has been free to the public, showcasing 2.5 million lights throughout the zoo.

Getting into a neighborly spirit

While the jury may be perpetually out on parking dibs, one theme that can be identified as a positive force is that of neighborly camaraderie and unity during cold snaps. We look out for each other during storms and dreaded polar vortex periods. Checking in on neighbors, helping shovel neighbor’s sidewalks, and generally being affable and available towards friends and neighbors is something Chicagoans do. It’s not only a point of pride, but one more reason why Chicago is a great place to call home.

Written by AJ LaTrace
AJ LaTrace is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer covering Chicago real estate, architecture, and neighborhoods. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Time Out Chicago, Michigan Avenue Magazine, Curbed Chicago, Block Club Chicago, and others.