A secular Chicago cycling Christmas

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The Chicago Cycling Club’s Bagel Ride – photo courtesy of Kathy Schubert

[This piece also runs in Newcity magazine.]

Christmas is a great time to be in Chicago, even if you’re not a Christian. As a mostly nonobservant Jewish person, I usually make a point of staying in town during the holiday because I always have a blast. It’s the best of both worlds. I get to enjoy the spirit of brotherhood and good cheer that prevails, and pedal the nearly traffic-free streets, but there’s no pressure to gather with relatives (Thanksgiving is when we do that) or exchange gifts. For me Christmas is a chance to spend quality time with members of my family of choice, my longtime friends from the local bicycling community.

While religion isn’t a big party of my life nowadays, I always enjoy observing one of the great Jewish-American rituals: Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Eve. Each year a handful of my Jewish, Buddhist and atheist friends, as well as a few Christian “strays” who aren’t spending the holiday with relatives, join me for the annual Christmas Eve in Chinatown bike ride. This year it leaves from Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington, at 5:30 pm. All are welcome.

Cozy in our wool and Gore-Tex, we pedal 2.5 miles to Won Kow restaurant, (2337 S. Wentworth, 312-842-7500). Opened in 1928 it’s Chinatown’s oldest eatery. In that cheerful, retro setting, surrounded by other revelers, we enjoy tasty American-style Chinese dishes like General Tso’s chicken and Hong Kong Steak, and toast the season with Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiis and tiki drinks served in flaming volcano bowls.

Afterwards we take in a holiday flick at a Loop theater and go out for more drinks, usually at Delilah’s (2771 N. Lincoln, 773-472-2771), the legendary Lincoln Park punk rock and bourbon bar. It’s always buzzing on Christmas Eve, when Chicago expats return home from the coasts and meet up with old pals to reminisce over Old Crow and PBR before opening presents with their families the next morning.

On Christmas Day I usually wake up early and do the Chicago Cycling Club’s annual Bagel Ride, cruising a few miles to brunch at a delicatessen. This year the ride leaves from the Robert Crown Community Center, 1701 Main Street in Evanston, at 10 am.

Although the weather was gloomy, Christmas Day 2010 was a particularly fun-filled day for me. Here’s a Google map to give you a rough idea of my itinerary.

Recovering from the previous night’s karaoke session at the Blue Frog in Streeterville (22 E. Hubbard Street, 312-527-1200), I overslept the start of the Bagel Ride. But a friend and I caught the Red Line up to Howard Street with our bikes and then rode a few miles northwest to meet up with the group at The Bagel Deli at the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie (4999 Old Orchard Center, Suite E30, 847-677-0100). There we enjoyed hot coffee, blintzes, and a lox, egg and onion scramble plus the company of the friendly crew of cyclists.

Next my friend and I pedaled a few miles west in a sleet-filled headwind to Glenview to visit some Israeli friends and to take their kids tobogganing on the steep, kick-ass sledding hill at nearby Flick Park (3600 Glenview Road, 847-724-3337). After warming up with spice cake and cider, we backtracked to the Old Orchard Mall to catch a matinee of the less-than-heartwarming thriller “Black Swan.”

Following that, we rode the CTA’s Skokie Swift Line back to Howard Street and pedaled to Sher-A-Punjab (2510 W. Devon Avenue, 773-973-4000), my go-to joint for Indian buffet. There we refueled with scrumptious matter paneer (peas and cheese in tomato sauce), lamb curry, fresh baked naan and sizzling tandoori chicken.

Cruising southeast on Lincoln Avenue, we topped off our day of secular Christmas fun with a nightcap, meeting up with Jewish friends at a German pub, The Huettenbar (4721 N. Lincoln, 773-561-2507), for goblets of Kostritzer Schwartzbier dark lager. “Hutten” means cottage or shack, and the tavern’s soft lighting and rustic rafters make you feel like you’re in a cozy Alpine cabin, creating a sense of “Gemeuthlichkeit” – warmth, comfort and belonging.

Full of delicious ethnic chow and pleasantly (but not dangerously) buzzed, we cycled home in the now-crystalline winter night. We also felt gratitude to all the folks who put in a full day’s work on December 25th, making it possible for us to enjoy this delightful non-Christian cycling Christmas.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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