A Chicago Holiday Tradition: the Great Tree at Marshall Fields 110 years later

A Chicago Holiday Tradition: the Great Tree at Marshall Fields 110 years later
Tree-warming party at the Walnut Room. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

This year celebrates the 110th year of the 'Great Tree.'

It was a very different Chicago 110 years ago. Horse-drawn vehicles were de rigueur, people dressed up to go 'downtown.' Women and children wore white gloves, fine clothes and fancy hats. Men wore suits, ties and hats called bowlers--sometimes even top hats.

During the holidays regions of families would put on their Sunday best and head to Marshall Field's on State Street where they would expectantly stand in line for however long it took to get a table in the Walnut Room under the magnificent, massive real live evergreen tree that was protected by on-site firemen 24 hours a day.

The first Walnut Room (then called The South Grill) in 1907. Marshall Field’s archives

The first Walnut Room (then called The South Grill) in 1907. Marshall Field’s archives

Today, 110 years later, things are very different but one thing remains, 'The Great Tree.' Even Marshall Field's didn't survive, but 'The Great Tree' did.

For how long, who knows. Currently, the 8th through the 14th floors of the building are up for sale. That leaves, The Walnut Room, that houses the Great Tree, and is located on the 7th floor of the building intact.

According to Macy's spokesperson, Andrea Schwartz,  "the tradition of the Great Tree in the Walnut Room will continue" (since the top half of the tree extends through the 8th floor, we'll have to see how that works).

For 2017 we can still celebrate the tradition. Saturday was the huge kick-off event, the lighting of the Great Tree, that to many is the official start of Chicago's holiday season. Although some complain this is too early, according to Schwartz "the Great Tree Lighting is always held the first Saturday in November with the exception of when it falls on the first of November--the day after Halloween."

Last night, at a special Great Tree celebration in the Walnut Room, guests were treated to items from the Walnut Room menu including Mrs. Hering's (the lady from the Marshall Field's millinery department that got the tradition of elegant dining in a department store rolling back in 1890) chicken pot pie creation--a mini-version.

Walnut Room mini chicken pot pie. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Walnut Room mini chicken pot pie. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

This popular Chicken Pot Pie, along with the Peach Nest Salad, and The Field's Special are on the Walnut Room menu throughout the year. When the holidays approach, Macy's rolls out its holiday menus featuring festive drinks and desserts.

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The beverage menu offers special holiday beverages (non-alcoholic and alcoholic) and desserts such as: the Holiday Yule Log (chocolate filled vanilla cake with bittersweet chocolate icing).

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The Walnut Room is a Chicago treasure any time of the year with its sparkling Austrian chandeliers and Circassian wood imported from Russia but it really comes into its own during the holiday season.

The 2017 Great Tree.

The 2017 Great Tree.

For over five decades the Great Tree was a 45-foot real tree, hauled up the light well in the store and  decorated by Field’s design staff. In the early 1960s, the store switched to an artificial tree. Although the base of the tree has always been located on the 7th Floor, originally the ceiling stretched to the 10th floor. Sadly, it was lowered to the 8th floor to make extra room for storage.

You can celebrate the 110-year tradition of the Great Tree with a variety of dining options from a buffet breakfast to lunch and dinner. Or you can just go up to the 8th floor and take some selfies with the tree in the background--something that would have been hard to do 110 years ago.

Click here for hours and options.

For more holiday events, visit Show Me Chicago's calendar of holiday and winter events here.

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