FLOODED WITH YULETIDE SPIRIT
There's far more to Christmas than shopping and wrapping presents to put under the tree. For those who want to get out and explore, there are cities and towns in every state that truly know how to celebrate the season, rolling out over-the-top lighting displays, sleigh rides, holiday concerts, festivals, carolers, boat parades, and more.
It's hard to beat a place that hosts a Christmas display that involves 14 million lights. Yes, 14 million, that's not a typo. Each year the Holiday Spectacular Park in Wicksburg becomes Christmas central. The over-the-top light display is just one attraction. There's also hayrides through the woods, concerts, fireworks and more. The park is open from Dec. 1 through Dec. 31.
NORTH POLE, ALASKA
This town's name alone makes is worth a visit during the holidays. Located outside Fairbanks, North Pole is known for its candy-cane signposts and Santa Claus house complete with a white-bearded resident in a red suit and a team of reindeer. Don't miss the Christmas on Ice exhibit, which begins in late November and attracts artists from around the world who create enormous holiday-themed ice sculptures. There's also an ice maze.
Designated Arizona's official Christmas City in 1989, Prescott is known for its annual lighting of the Courthouse Plaza and the many trees dotting the picturesque area. There's also a Christmas parade that includes floats, horses, bands, and Santa Claus himself. Both the parade and the plaza lighting take place Dec. 1. Later the same evening, don't miss the annual Frontier Christmas at Sharlot Hall Museum, where luminarias, hand-made decorations, fresh-baked cookies, and hot cider greet visitors. Admission is $5.
During the holiday season, all of downtown Rogers is decorated with lights and glowing decor. There's also an annual Christmas parade to welcome Santa Claus on Dec. 7. While in town, don't miss taking touring the 1895 Hawkins House, which showcases the decorations and traditions of an early 20th Century Christmas. Continue the holiday theme by taking in a showing of "Elf" on Dec. 8 at the Arkansas Public Theater in Rogers.
A small town founded by Danish immigrants, Solvang is known for its European, fairytale atmosphere, says travel blogger Jessica Norah of Independent Travel Cats. Come December, the charming small town celebrates Julefest, an event that includes light displays, markets and more. The Solvang Julefest Tree Lighting is Dec. 7, during which the live entertainment ranges from dancing ballerinas, to bands, caroling, and the arrival of Santa Claus. Other holiday events in December include a Julefest parade and a Nativity pageant.
Breckenridge, a picturesque winter wonderland, is one of the few places where you will see hundreds of Santas all at once. The town hosts an annual event known as the Running of the Santas to kick off the season, during which Kris Kringle look-alikes race down Main Street. The event — which takes place the first weekend in December and includes a tree lighting, caroling, and more — is just the beginning of Breckenridge's annual transformation into a sparkling holiday town. Later in the month, there's a torchlight parade down the mountain.
Mystic kicks off its Christmas celebrations with an annual tree lighting and holiday boat parade on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when Santa and his helpers light the Mystic tree and then oversee a spectacular parade down the Mystic River. Mystic also offers Lantern Light Tours, which are walking performances throughout the town that showcase the theme "Finding Your Place," set on Christmas Eve 1876. Also not to miss, the Festival of Lights in Old Mistick Village on Dec. 7, when more than 4,000 luminarias light village walkways.
NEW CASTLE, DELAWARE
With its well-preserved colonial history and traditions, New Castle is said to be one of the most charming Christmas towns in the state of Delaware. One of the best times to visit is during the town's annual "Spirit of Christmas" event (Dec. 8) during which there are tours of private homes and churches that have been decorated for the season, a tree lighting, caroling, and musical events.
FERNANDINA, AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA
For those who don't need snow to have the perfect Christmas, there's Fernandina on Amelia Island. The charming town is decked out for the holidays. Christmas activities include an annual holiday home tour on Nov. 30 during which historic downtown homes are decorated for the season and opened to the public. The annual Dickens on Centre (Dec. 7-9) is another popular holiday event. The festival, inspired by the Charles Dickens novella "A Christmas Carol," includes costumed characters, themed entertainment, and a visit from St. Nick.
The charm of Bavaria can be found in Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Helen is a small town that was designed to look as if it was airlifted straight from Germany, and come winter, the community is even more picturesque. The holiday season here includes the Lighting of the Village in downtown, which is led by Santa and Mrs. Claus on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A few weeks later there's the Christkindlmarkt, a German tradition where the center of town is filled with booths that offer specialty gift items, decorations, savory food, drinks and candied treats.
While there may not be any snow, there's plenty of Christmas spirit in Hawaii. Cities and towns throughout the islands turn into festive holiday wonderlands come November and December by hosting parades, tree lightings, and more. One of the most notable places, though not exactly a town, is Honolulu. The season kicks off with the annual Honolulu City Lights tree lighting at City Hall on Dec. 1. There's also a holiday concert and an Electric Light Parade. The Honolulu City Lights festival runs from Dec. 1 through Jan. 1, and includes a Santa's Enchanted Forest in the courtyard of Honolulu City Hall.
COEUR D'ALENE, IDAHO
Not only is a white Christmas a sure bet in the picturesque lakeside community of Coeur d'Alene, there's also a variety of holiday activities to make for a memorable visit. The season began the Friday after Thanksgiving with the Coeur d'Alene lighting ceremony, which involves turning on a staggering 1.5 million lights that decorate downtown and the waterfront. After this memorable event, there’s an original holiday theater production staged by the nearby Coeur d'Alene Resort. This year's production runs through Dec. 16. The resort is also the location of a stunning display of ornately decorated trees.
With its idyllic, garland-lined Main Street and charming bed and breakfasts, Galena is a slice of pure Americana, particularly at Christmas. The season kicked off with the annual Festival of Trees on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which showcases a display of one-of-a-kind holiday trees, wreaths, and other items created by local artists and organizations. Activities continue throughout the season with events such as a Christmas progressive dinner in early December, and a Night of Luminaria and Living Windows. There's also a Mistletoe Stroll and Holiday House Tour.
SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA
Who can pass up a town named after the big man in red? Home to the only post office in the world with Santa's name, this small town in southern Indiana is full of holiday offerings. Top Christmas attractions include Santa's Candy Castle; the Santa Claus Museum and Village; and Frosty's Fun Center. From mid-November through December there's also a variety of Christmas events to take in such as the Santa Claus Land of Lights display, a 1.2-mile drive that tells the story of Rudolph in LED lights. The lights are on display through Dec. 30.
A tiny town known for its big holiday spirit, Wyoming is affectionately referred to locally as "The Christmas City." That's because each year Christmas lights bathe all of Wyoming's Main Street in such spectacular color that the glow can be seen from miles away. For the past 90 years, Wyoming has been creating a Christmas canopy of lights over the road. In addition to more than 2,500 lights, there's also about 40 decorated trees lining the street. The mesmerizing display attracts visitors from far and wide.
Since about 1950, the town of WaKeeney has had the title "Christmas City of the High Plains." Each November, the town transforms into a holiday wonderland that lights up the prairie skies from Thanksgiving until New Year's. The spectacle includes a 35-foot tree under a canopy of blue lights in the middle of downtown. A four-square-block area around the tree is draped with fresh greenery, handcrafted wreaths, bows, bells, and more lights. The annual tradition is considered the largest Christmas tree and lighting display between Kansas City and Denver.
BOWLING GREEN, KENTUCKY
Each year, Bowling Green's Fountain Square Park transforms into a glittering Christmas scene. The spectacle includes the Dec. 7 with the Downtown Lights Up event, when thousands of twinkling lights are turned on in the park. The city's Christmas spirit can also be witnessed via a variety of events including the BG Christmas Parade through downtown Bowling Green and the Christmas in Kentucky event at the Kentucky Museum, where there's gingerbread sampling, ornament decorating and more. There's also a chance to take a peek into some of Bowling Green's most impressively decorated homes as part of the Landmark Association's Christmas Tour of Homes.
A tiny town of just 18,000 people, Natchitoches puts on an impressive holiday presentation. Starting Nov. 17, visitors have been greeted by more than 300,000 lights and more than 100 displays that are turned on every night at dusk until Jan. 6. The annual Christmas Festival, described as the top holiday event in Louisiana, includes live music, arts, crafts, a parade, and a fireworks show choreographed to holiday music.
An idyllic, tiny seaside town that's popular in the summer, Kennebunkport actually sees its largest tourism boost in December during the annual holiday festivities. Each year, the historic downtown district, Dock Square, is decked out in holiday lights and decorations. A Lobster Trap Tree lighting ceremony, complete with caroling from the local high school choir, kicks off the celebrations on Nov. 30. Other notable events throughout the season include home tours, and a town-wide parade with Santa arriving via a lobster boat.
Frederick's charming downtown with its historic architecture becomes an almost magical holiday wonderland as Christmas approaches each year. Shop windows are decorated with twinkling lights, and there are carolers on many corners. Holiday festivities kick off with Frosty Friday, a Christmas celebration that takes place the day after Thanksgiving and includes caroling and horse drawn carriage rides. Yet another highlight of the season is the Candlelight House Tour on Dec. 1-2, which allows visitors to walk through elaborately adorned homes throughout historic Frederick.
Nantucket is a charming community no matter what time of year you visit. But from Nov. 23 until Jan. 1 the island is celebrating Nantucket Noel, a month of events that includes the 45th Annual Nantucket Christmas Stroll Weekend (Nov. 30-Dec. 2). The island's tribute to the wonder of bygone Christmases, activities include Santa arriving via Coast Guard vessel to be escorted up Straight Wharf by the town crier. After a parade up cobblestoned Main Street to the historic Jared Coffin House, Santa sits by a blazing fireplace to meet with children. If all that isn't enough, there's also a magical talking tree.
This tiny town (population about 5,000) is steeped in Bavarian tradition, and it has the architecture to prove it. It also boasts the world’s largest Christmas store. This year, events include a Christkindlmarkt (Nov. 30-Dec. 2), a German Christmas songfest at the St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, an annual holiday home tour, and a “Silent Night” sing-along celebration marking the 200th anniversary of that beloved Christmas carol.
RED WING, MINNESOTA
The Christmas season in Red Wing includes parades, cookie decorating, visits from reindeer, and more. Named one of "America's 23 Best Small Towns for Christmas" by Country Living, the community also hosts sleigh rides, a live nativity scene and a great deal of music. Much of this activity is centered around the annual Holiday Stroll, which takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving. Other events include holiday performances such as “The Nutcracker” at the Sheldon Theatre.
With its historic courthouse square (a National Register Landmark) decorated in more than 200,000 lights and its Victorian Christmas Festival (Nov. 23-Dec. 23), Canton is another community that becomes picture perfect each holiday season. Known as the "City of Lights," the highlight of the season is the festival, which includes old-fashioned carousel rides, animated displays, and more.
Branson is another community that transforms each winter with miles of drive-through light displays and decorations in nearly every shop door. The community attracts throngs of visitors during the holiday season with its variety of events. One of the most popular seasonal offerings is An Old Time Christmas (Nov. 3 - Dec. 30) at Silver Dollar City, during which the theme park becomes a Christmas wonderland with 6.5 million lights and 80 themed Christmas trees.
Widely recognized as one of Montana's most beautiful towns, Whitefish is a resort town in the Rocky Mountains that provides a picturesque setting for holiday celebrations. One of the best times to visit is during the annual Christmas Stroll, which includes a performance by the Alpine Bell Ringers hand-bell choir, a tree lighting ceremony, dance performances, caroling, and storytelling. Amid all of this, Santa arrives on a wagon to take pictures with the kids.
Minden is known as Nebraska's "Christmas City." The name can be traced back to 1915 when the local light commissioner decorated the courthouse dome. To this day, lights continue to decorate the dome each Christmas and can be seen for miles. The community also hosts a popular Christmas pageant known as "The Light of the World." Performed by locals on the courthouse square, the event (held the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and the first two Sundays in December) culminates with illumination of more than 12,000 bulbs adorning the courthouse and the square itself. Other events include a holiday craft fair on the square and a Christmas City 5K walk/run, both on Dec. 1.
LAS VEGAS, NV
While Las Vegas is hardly a small town, it's certainly a place that knows how to get into the Christmas spirit. In fact, Sin City goes all out for the holiday. Santas can be spotted all over downtown, and cacti are decorated like Christmas trees. Among the top activities is exploring the winter display at the Bellagio's Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which are decorated with more than 34,000 poinsettias, azaleas, cyclamen, and mums, as well as a 14-foot snow tunnel. You can also go ice skating at the Cosmopolitan, the city's only outdoor rink.
PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Portsmouth hosts a month-long celebration of the season known as Vintage Christmas. One of the most notable events during the month is a candlelight stroll through history at the Strawbery Banke Museum. Participants walk along candlelit dirt lanes amid glowing historic homes featuring costumed players. The city also hosts an annual gingerbread house contest, and on Dec. 1, there's a Christmas tree lighting and holiday parade.
CAPE MAY, NEW JERSEY
The Victorian seaside town of Cape May becomes a Dickens-era village each year for the holidays, decorated with garlands of green and twinkling gaslights. Among the many Christmas-themed activities are candlelight house tours throughout the month, Ghosts of Christmas Past trolley rides, breakfasts with Santa, and also Santa trolley rides.
TAOS, NEW MEXICO
The Taos historic district's snow-covered buildings and streets lined by luminarias transport visitors to another time and place each Christmas season. The entire holiday season has been given the name Yuletide in Taos, which refers to all of the unique New Mexican celebrations that take place. On Nov. 30, there's caroling and a tree lighting. Later in the month the Bonfires on Bent Street includes Aztec dancers. Also not to miss, the Christmas Eve procession at Taos Pueblo, which involves the Procession of the Virgin with rifle salutes from the rooftops of the 1,000-year-old pueblo buildings.
PORT JEFFERSON, NEW YORK
Another community that offers up its best Dickens impression each holiday season, Port Jefferson transforms on Dec. 1 and Dec. 2 into a community filled with roaming characters such as Father Christmas, Scrooge and the Town Crier. The annual Charles Dickens Festival also includes chestnut vendors, ice skating at the Village Center, "Nutcracker" performances, and magic shows.
MCADENVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
A community that's also known as "Christmas Town USA," McAdenville, just outside of Charlotte, is famous for its over-the-top light display. The tradition dates back nearly six decades and involves decorating about 375 trees and nearly all the homes in the town in red, white, and green lights. The official lighting is Nov. 30, but the lights glow nightly starting at 5:30 p.m. and remain on display until Dec. 26. About 600,000 people from across the country visited the tiny textile town in past years to see the spectacle, which has been described as one of the top Christmas attractions in the state.
GARRISON, NORTH DAKOTA
The official Christmas capital of the state, Garrison hosts an annual Dickens Village Festival that includes craft shows, street vendors, a parade, and rides on a double-decker Queen Elizabus. The festival is held over three weekends between late November and early December. One of the most beloved events of the festival is the annual fruitcake toss, which involves hurling the cakes as far as possible in an attempt to win a cash prize.
If you haven't yet gotten your fill of Charles Dickens Christmas scenes, Cambridge is yet another option to consider, says Norah of Independent Travel Cats. From Nov. 2 through Dec. 31, the small town in southeastern Ohio turns into Victorian England with more than 90 scenes and 150 figures from the era. Each evening there are light shows at Cambridge's historic courthouse using thousands of pulsating lights synchronized to holiday music. The show involves 36 animated light displays and 15,000 lights outlining the building, which dates back to 1881.
Sulphur is home to numerous Christmas traditions beginning with Opening Night on the Plaza (Nov. 24), during which all the downtown businesses kick off the season by turning on their outdoor light displays. Classic Christmas at The Artesian Hotel, meanwhile, offers a month-long celebration of the season that includes live reindeer, carolers, horse-drawn carriage rides, breakfast with Santa, and storytime with Mrs. Claus.
A historic community that got its start as a gold rush town, Jacksonville is decorated in red bows and twinkling lights for the holiday season. And like many other places around the country, the town hosts a Victorian, Dickens-themed celebration for the holidays. The celebration begins with a merchant open house and tree lighting ceremony the Saturday after Thanksgiving and continues the first three weekends in December. Highlights include pictures with Father Christmas, strolling carolers, and complimentary hot cider.
Yet another community known as "Christmas City," Bethlehem hosts one of the top holiday markets in the country. The city's Christkindlmarkt, which dates back more than 25 years, includes handmade works by more than 150 artisans, Christmas music, ice-carving and glass-blowing demonstrations, and breakfast with St. Nicholas. The market runs on weekends until Dec. 23.
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
It's hard to beat the holiday spectacle of Newport, home to Gilded Age mansions built by some of this country's wealthiest citizens. Among the celebrations here is Christmas in Newport, a month-long event that involves using clear bulbs to illuminate the harbor and wharves, the restored colonials of the Point and Historic Hill neighborhoods, and the Victorian splendor of Bellevue Avenue. Christmas at the Newport Mansions meanwhile showcases three of the finest mansions decked out in Yuletide finery.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
Founded in 1786, Columbia was the one of the premier Southern cities in the 1800s, known for its fine homes and luxurious gardens. Today it is known for its historic holiday celebrations, which include visits from Santa, tours of historic homes that are decorated for the season, and candlelight tours and carriage rides through the Robert Mills Historic District. It's Christmas at its Southern finest.
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
Rapid City decks the halls like few other places. Each holiday season, the Main Street Square area is filled by an outdoor skating rink, a huge Christmas tree, and more. Held in conjunction with Small Business Saturday, the festivities kicked off on Nov. 24 with the Holiday Celebration and Winter Market during which the Christmas tree was lit. The Festival of Lights Parade brought floats decorated with thousands of lights through the downtown area on the same day, attracting more than 30,000 spectators. There’s also an hour-long 1880 Train Holiday Express that runs through Dec. 23, as well asnumerous other events.
With the historic town's Victorian architecture serving as a backdrop, Franklin celebrates Christmas in full style. The highlight of the season is the Dickens of a Christmas event on Dec. 8-9, which brings out 200 musicians, dancers and characters who fill the streets. Among the wandering characters is Fagin from "Oliver Twist," Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim from "A Christmas Carol" and a Victorian Father and Mother Christmas who are handing out treats for the children. It's hard to get more charming than that.
Just how many capitals of Christmas can there be? Grapevine is known as the Christmas capital of Texas thanks to its hosting more than 1,400 holiday events. Among the top activities here is the Grapevine Vintage Railroad's North Pole Express. During the ride, Santa's helpers sing traditional Christmas music. Before the trip is over, Mrs. Claus makes an appearance to gift each child a silver "We Believe" Santa bell. For those not hopping on the train, downtown Grapevine is blanketed with millions of lights and enormous decorations.
Magic is in the air each year in Ogden, which decorates its downtown with a Christmas Village. The winter wonderland includes Christmas lights at every turn and cottages modeled after Santa's village at the North Pole. The village remains on display through Jan. 1.
This town of just 3,000 located on the edge of the Green Mountains is famous for its holiday spirit. The entire town is decorated with wreaths, garlands and lights each year. Among the top seasonal activities is Wassail Weekend (Dec. 7-9), which includes a children's choir performances on the library steps, house tours, and an equestrian parade.
Just minutes from Washington, D.C., Alexandria offers a bit of nostalgic wonder during the holiday season. Known for its twinkling trees along brick-lined streets, visitors stroll under a canopy of sparkling lights on King Street. Alexandria has been named one of America's "Top Holiday Towns" by USA Today and a "Top 10 Christmas Town" by HGTV. One of the seasonal favorites is the annual Scottish Christmas Walk (Nov. 30-Dec. 1), which includes a parade with dozens of Scottish clans dressed in colorful tartans.
It's hard to beat a place that has been named "America's Ultimate Holiday Town," by the A&E channel, and "The Most Christmassy Place in America" by the Travel Channel. A Bavarian-style village with a population of about 1,900, Leavenworth transforms itself each year with more than a half-million lights strung throughout the town. The first three weekends of December the community hosts its nationally recognized Christmas Lighting Festival, which includes chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh rides, holiday characters, and sledding.
SHEPHERDSTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA
Known as a place that transforms into a winter wonderland, Shepherdstown's holiday offerings include a live Nativity, a town tree lighting, music on the streets, bonfires, a Christmas parade, and tours of the town in horse-drawn carriages. If all of that isn't enough, there are also performances of the "Nutcracker," Victorian carolers, and bonfires throughout the season.
Downtown Hayward is famous for its annual light display, known as A Lure of Lights. The dazzling light display is turned on every evening at dusk from Nov. 23 through Jan. 1. There are also sleigh rides and hot-chocolate crawls during the season.
JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING
A region famous for being home to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole also knows how to celebrate Christmas in high style. The annual lighting of the town's charming, old main square was Nov. 23. Other seasonal events in this winter wonderland include sleigh rides at the National Elk Refuge just outside of town and Santa on the town square, nightly through Christmas Eve.