After last year’s cancellation due to the pandemic, TBOX, or the Twelve Bars of Christmas bar crawl, will return to Wrigleyville on December 11 to celebrate 25 years of herds of people in ugly holiday sweaters roaming Clark Street and getting steadily trashed over the course of a day of drinking.
The crawl was nixed in 2020 after the city denied founder Christopher Festa’s application for a permit. Festa says he was “heartbroken,” but understood that an event that encourages people drinking together in close proximity and hoping to hook up — in other words, the opposite of social distancing — was not optimal during a pandemic.
This year, Festa says he has been working closely with the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce to make sure that the bar crawl complies with all the city safety regulations, including bar capacity limits and mask wearing indoors. “There have been quite a few large-scale events, like Lollapalooza, and as long as we follow the experts and the guidelines, people will gladly follow rules,” Festa says optimistically. Lollapalooza, a four-day outdoor event which had 385,000 visitors, was linked to 203 COVID-19 cases, but no hospitalizations or deaths, according to city officials. Meanwhile, as temperatures plunge and more people around town are spending more time indoors, the Chicago has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, with the city seeing a 12 percent jump compared to last week, according to the city. City officials aren’t alarmed.
Next month, Festa expects between 12,000 and 15,000 people to attend TBOX. When tickets went on sale in June, the first 1,000, specially priced at $5 apiece, were snapped up in 15 minutes, he says. Tickets range from $19 to $40, depending on when they’re purchased.
As in years past, the bar crawl will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Cubby Bear. Visitors will be able to take the traditional cereal shots, though this year, Festa says, the cereal will be dispensed via a six-foot-long slide that will be sanitized after every use.
The bars will open at 11 and the crawl will continue till 7 p.m., when it reconvenes at the Cubby Bear for closing ceremonies. There are 31 establishments participating this year including Diver at the Park, Slugger’s Bar & Grill, Happy Camper, and Irish Oak. Almost all of them are on Clark between Waveland and Roscoe, with a few outliers on Addison and Sheffield; the TBOX website suggests several different routes to avoid congestion. Most of the bars will be serving food all day.
This year’s TBOX theme is “Back to the ’90,” a nod to the event’s beginnings in 1996 when Festa invited some of his coworkers at Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) to join him on a December bar crawl through Lincoln Park. This was after his landlord forbade him from having his annual holiday party in his apartment because the neighbors had complained. TBOX moved to Wrigleyville in 1999 for the larger-capacity bars. “The 21st century has had so many challenges and difficulties,” Festa says. “We wanted to bring back a more carefree time.”
Over the years, Festa says, TBOX has raised $300,000 for various charities. This year, the organization plans to work with nine or 10 local nonprofits, which will have stations at various bars so bargoers can donate directly.
As far as Festa knows, he and one friend are the only people who have participated in every year of TBOX. Last year, he dressed up in his Santa suit and, with his wife, visited 12 bars in Florida, where he now lives most of the year, so he could continue the streak.
TBOX has not been without controversy over the years. It’s also become a Chicago Twitter tradition to keep an eye on police scanner updates during the crawl. In 2012, an attendee stabbed another with a broken bottle; although the incident technically happened after the event was over, an investigation showed that TBOX provided half the security force it had promised city officials that it would. TBOX has since cut back the length of the bar crawl, from 19 hours to nine, and the event has had to file permits with the city.
“My attitude this year is to be grateful to be back in business,” Festa says. “We missed going out and having a big, full day of crazy partying with everyone in crazy costumes. I just want everyone to help us celebrate the 25th anniversary.”