TBOX 2012

The 12 Bars of Christmas (aka TBOX) in 2012 (Hilary Higgins / For RedEye / December 10, 2013)

Christmas comes early every year for Bridgid Defranceschi of Lakeview.

On Saturday morning, she'll do as she always does—wake up energized after a long night's sleep, prepare eggs and toast for her friends and family and don her best Christmas outfit—to go boozing for 12 hours.

For the past five years, Defranceschi has partied in a thousands-strong, daylong 12 Bars of Christmas (TBOX) pub crawl in Wrigleyville that features costumes, stickers and enough cereal to make Grape Nuts lovers, uh, go nuts. (The cereal component of the crawl has a complex origin story, but organizers currently explain it as a way for people to do "shots" of something at each bar without emphasizing excessive drinking.)

In past years, she has encountered a man wearing a wooden sleigh with lady reindeer and formed longtime friendships in bar bathroom lines. This year, she will strap on aviator goggles and with a handful of her friends will day drink as aviation pioneer and feminist icon Amelia Earhart to coincide with TBOX's airline theme.

"I've kind of made it a tradition. That's like my Christmas with my friends," said Defranceschi, 28. "It gets kind of crazy."

TBOX, which began in 1996 as a small bar crawl between friends, is expected to attract about 23,000 participants, many in costumes, this year. The goal of the day, which begins at 8 a.m., is to hit 12 of the 50-plus Wrigleyville-area bars.

But before you grab your jingle bells and hit the streets Saturday, know that this year's TBOX comes with a twist—one that incorporates 122 security officers, 230 barricades, 50 porta-potties, and two cleanup shifts of 10 people.

TBOX officials are hoping they go from the naughty list to the nice list after a 23-year-old man was arrested and charged with aggravated battery causing great bodily harm for allegedly stabbing a man with a broken beer bottle last year in the bathroom of Red Ivy, a TBOX stop, after the event was officially over.

At least one business reported to the media that it sustained a broken window from a fight that involved guys wearing TBOX gear.

In the months after last year's crawl, TBOX established an advisory committee of bars and business groups, devised an emergency plan and received a special event permit normally reserved for festivals, not bar crawls.

But this is no ordinary crawl. About 23,000 revelers were present last year, and TBOX officials hope their newly enacted measures will keep the 17-year-old tradition alive.

The cost of the additional security, bathrooms, Dumpsters and aid stations won't be known until after the event, but "it's a significant investment," said TBOX spokeswoman Lissa Druss Christman of Serafin & Associates, a public relations firm retained this fall by event creator Chris Festa. "Chris just really wanted to improve [TBOX]."

On the stabbing incident—still in the court system—that inspired the changes, Christman said, "It was an anomaly, and it was unfortunate it happened."

It's not Santa who will be checking on TBOX this year, but Wrigleyville business owners and residents, some of whom have complained about the public intoxication and urination and unwieldy crowds that have earned TBOX a spot with St. Patrick's Day and Blackhawks Stanley Cup celebrations as top Chicago party days.

Still, Lakeview officials say they are encouraged by the TBOX changes this year.

"We're really pleased about the enhancements and improvements," said Erin Duffy, director of community outreach for Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whose ward is TBOX central. "We think it's going to be a great event and work well with the community."

Despite these adjustments, Joshua Collins won't be back to TBOX this year.

Collins moved from Washington to Chicago last summer and heard from friends that TBOX is a jolly day. So the Lakeview resident slipped on a Santa hat and festive T-shirt and prepared for joy. Instead, he said, he spent seven hours standing in lines and fighting crowds and watching fights break out.

TBOX recommends that event virgins like Collins wear a sticker that tells other festgoers to "treat you gently and help you along if you're confused." That didn't happen for Collins

"The actual experience was more of like going to a concert, but without the redeeming music you go for," said Collins, 30. "When you got into a bar, there was really no place to go. It was like being on a packed 'L' car. You're shoved up against people, and it's really not that fun."

"I did what I was supposed to do. I wore the cheesy buttons and all that stuff. Didn't really help the experience."

Heather Way Kitzes, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, said lack of crowd control appeared to be the No. 1 issue last year.

Way Kitzes, one of 11 members of the TBOX advisory committee, said it seemed party crashers also were a problem last year. TBOXers are required to have tickets, which cost $45, and bars cannot let anyone but partygoers with wristbands in during designated hours.

Way Kitzes said TBOX helps bring foot traffic to the Clark Street area at a time when business can be slow. A '90s TBOXer, she is optimistic for this year's event.

"Those enhancements will play a big part in the success of TBOX," Way Kitzes said. "I think if it goes horribly wrong this year, I think it will be heavily evaluated going forward."

tswartz@tribune.com | @tracyswartz