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Stars’ Chicago holiday memories: Julia Roberts, John Cena and more

Tyler Perry (pictured in "A Madea Christmas" in 2014) has his own set of Chicago shopping tips. | LIONSGATE

Over the years, a number of film and TV stars have found themselves in Chicago over the holidays. Mostly, they came to make movies or work on a television series, but sometimes it was strictly to visit family or celebrate to Our Town’s special holiday magic. Here’s what some celebs have told me they encountered during their Christmases in Chicago:

THE SHOPPING

• “It’s THE best shopping in the country!” said pro wrestler-turned-actor John Cena while. uh, bullishly chatting up “Ferdinand,” his animated film out Dec. 22. “I love going down Oak Street as well as Michigan Avenue around the holidays. The stores are not only beautifully decorated, just like those twinkling lights on the [Gold Coast] streets, but I have always found the most unusual gifts — especially for my fiancée, Niki [Bella]. … That girl sure loves her jewelry!”

• From his early “Madea” performances at the Regal Theatre to his time spent here with good pal Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry recalled, “Shopping down on State Street or up on Michigan Avenue around the holidays was always a treat. … One thing I learned early on, however, was to hit the stores right when they opened, and never on a weekend, at least not after Thanksgiving. Of course, today, like so many other places, Christmas shopping starts way before Black Friday!”

Karimah Westbrook | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

• Chicago native Karimah Westbrook, who recently co-starred in “Suburbicon,” said of the holidays, “I think first about family, but then it’s all about the shopping — plus I loved going downtown to watch the big holiday parade they do right around Thanksgiving weekend. It was a time I remembered when such a great mix of Chicago people would come together. Even though there would be something like a million people downtown, everyone was in a good mood and there was no strife. Wish that could last all year!”

Willem Dafoe has many memories of coming to town while growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin. “At Christmas I remember the regular journeys we would take to the big Marshall Field’s [now Macy’s] on State Street. I would have to go all the way around the block — in the proper order! — to see those magical, animated windows. They always had a special holiday theme. If they were especially good, I’d go around the block twice! … Then, we’d go up to the Walnut Room to see the big [Great Tree] that was always so beautifully decorated. The store also smelled like Christmas … all gingery and spicy. I loved it!”

THE TRAVEL

Julia Roberts | Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

• Some stars have less-than-perfect holiday memories from Chicago. “O’Hare is always difficult, but combine bad weather and Christmas traveling and you’ve got a nightmare,” recalled Julia Roberts. The Oscar winner — who has made “at least four films” in the area — remembered “one really tough time getting home to see my family for Christmas, and being stuck at O’Hare for more than a day. … That was a long time ago, but I still remember how frustrating that was. But people in Chicago love to decorate their homes. I do remember that — and more happily, of course!”

Actor-singer Nick Jonas, who has visited Chicago on tour a lot, also remembered being stuck at O’Hare. “I know it was Christmastime, because I recall all the people trying to go through security, not realizing their beautifully wrapped gifts would have to be opened. Some people really went nuts over that!”

THE COLD

• “I grew up in Iowa, so I know from cold winters,” said “Justice League” star Jason Momoa. “But remember, I was born in Hawaii and got back there as soon as I could after high school. … I do remember a couple of times being in Chicago — both at Christmas and New Year’s — and, for some reason, I forgot my hat. NOT a good idea in Chicago in December!”

Actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were on the sidelines during the pregame before the Chicago Bears’ 21-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers on December 16, 2012. | Sun-Times file

• “The cold weather is all part of it!” said Mila Kunis, who has attended a couple of Bears games close to Christmas with her now-husband Ashton Kutcher, an Iowa native and lifelong Bears fan. “Somehow, it just has to be freezing and you have to be cocooned in huge parkas and all that!”

THE SHOWS

• Finally, the city’s many artistic and cultural offerings around the holidays have been a draw for a number of A-Listers. Michael Shannon has fond memories of attending the sing-along Handel’s “Messiah” at Symphony Center, “where no one cares how good — or bad — you sing!” … Miles Teller discovered “that going to the Art Institute on a dreary Tuesday around the holidays was great — no crowds!” … Kenneth Branagh recalls “a glorious” production of “The Nutcracker.” … Josh Gad loved being at the Goodman Theatre for “A Christmas Carol,” many years ago, “and being reminded why that story is, and was, an eternal classic.”